After the Divorce.

Italian author Grazia Deledda won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1926, the second woman to win that honor, the second Italian to do so, and the first Italian prose writer to win it. (There have been 113 winners, six of them from Italy, but four of the winners won for poetry or drama.) Her work focused largely on portraits of regional, peasant life in her native Sardinia, a Mediterranean island that is an autonomous region within Italy, with its own indigenous language and unique history, and a relatively strong economy today that, prior to World War II, was poorer and more driven by agriculture and mining. Deledda’s works, including her 1902 novel After the Divorce ($2 on Kindle), tend to put ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances so Deledda can display or criticize social mores, such as the economic disadvantage of being a woman in Italy at the center of this book.

Giovanna and Constantino are a young, happily married couple with an infant son whose unremarkable lives are shattered when Constantino is arrested for and convicted of the murder of his cruel, abusive uncle. A new law passed in Italy shortly after the trial allows a woman to divorce a husband who has been convicted of a crime and jailed, so Giovanna does so, under duress, and marries the neighboring landowner who has been lusting for her for years but whom she rejected prior to marrying Constantino. The marriage is a disaster, of course, and eventually the truth of the murder comes to light and Constantino is released to return to his village, where he and Giovanna begin an affair that leads, almost inevitably, to tragedy.

Although the end of After the Divorce doesn’t quite match the common ending of early novels on the same theme – Madame Bovary, The Awakening, and Anna Karenina all mine somewhat similar material – the novel is still at heart about how women of that era lacked economic power. When Constantino was jailed with no real hope of parole or acquittal, Giovanna has no way to feed herself or her child, and becomes a burden on her own money-obsessed mother.

Deledda never blames her protagonist, instead creating the framework of Shakespearean tragedies to put her core characters on a collision course with each other that you know will end badly for at least one of them. There’s no real way out of the mess short of someone dying; under the law, Giovanna is married to the vile neighbor, Brontu, who, along with his mother, treats her as a servant, and can’t divorce him to return to her first husband now that he’s free. Yet the culture of the time presented no avenue for her to earn any living, and the trial wiped out her family’s only source of income. It’s a feminist novel that predates most feminist literature; even The Awakening, which I think is one of the earliest examples of that genre, has a protagonist driven to infidelity by boredom (inflicted on her by a society that won’t let her do anything with her mind) rather than economic need. Deledda here seems to be describing an injustice of the time, one that might feel a little quaint today but was a real issue in much of Christendom before the post-World War II liberalization of laws around marriage and civil rights.

I’ve seen a few references to this book or Deledda in general as antecedents of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet, but I didn’t see the similarity; Ferrante, who writes under a pseudonym and has avoided nearly all media, hasn’t mentioned that this was an influence, and other than the setting there doesn’t seem to be a common thread here. If you liked Ferrante’s novels, you could certainly give Deledda a spin, but I wouldn’t say liking one indicates that you’ll like the other.

Next up: I’ve finished Margaret Wilson’s The Able McLaughlins, a Puliter winner, and am now reading Anna Smaill’s weird, dystopian novel The Chimes.

The Fifth Season.

N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season won the 2016 Hugo Prize for the best science-fiction novel of the year, and while I have had a lot of issues with Hugo winners, this one absolutely deserved the honor. Jemisin constructs a world that is thoroughly integrated with the plot, one that incorporates the theme of environmental degradation into its story, and uses a brilliant tripartite narrative that gradually comes together as the novel reaches the end, with a clever twist that I didn’t really see coming.

The Fifth Season is set on Earth of the very distant future, on a planet that experiences frequent seismic disruptions that cause “seasons” that threaten mass extinctions, like the way the 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora caused the so-called year without a summer. These seasons last years, decades, occasionally even a century, and wipe out most of civilization each time, although humanity attempts to learn and improve its survival chances with every change. There’s only one (known) continent, the Stillness, sort-of ruled by the remnants of an empire, with people organized into autonomous communities called “comms.”

People have evolved in the interim as well, with some people born with a special power called “orogeny” that allows them to draw strength from the earth itself and move stone or even tectonic plates. These orogenes, known colloquially by the pejorative term “roggas,” are often used to quell minor earthquakes, but can also move mountains, literally. Most orogenes are brought to the main comm and trained to use their powers, but some never learn and are a danger to themselves and others, leading to widespread prejudice and even violence. There’s also a third type of human running around, the stone-eaters, although their role isn’t clear till very late in the story.

Jemisin gives us those three intertwined narratives, all truly centered around orogeny – their roles in society and the way they’re simultaneously valued and feared by others. One is told in the second person, and “you” are the orogene mother of two, and when the story starts, you find that your non-orogenic husband has beaten your son to death, probably because he figured out the boy also had this power. The second follows a young girl, Damaya, who’s discovered to have the same power and is brought by a Guardian to the central comm for training in a special academy for orogenes, which isn’t exactly Hogwarts. The third follows Syenite, an adult orogene who is forced to join up with Alabaster, who’s implied to be the most powerful orogene in the Stillness, for the purposes of breeding and giving birth to lots of orogenic babies. When they’re also asked to visit a coastal comm and help them with a problem in their harbor, things start to go very wrong, a series of events that precipitates the union of the three storylines as the book reaches its conclusion.

Outside of Ursula K. Leguin’s work, The Fifth Season is probably the most outright feminist sci-fi novel I’ve ever read – but not in an overt way at all. The characters aren’t feminists; it’s not clear such a designation would have any meaning in this society. The entire story explores the role of women in society, the possibility of them having power equal to or exceeding that of men, and the timeless questions of a woman’s agency in matters like having children. Environmental degradation does underpin the overall story – Jemisin’s Earth often appears to be trying to kill people, and the humans’ pagan religion treats the planet as an angry god – but it’s the women themselves who are the stars of the novel, and their challenges drive the plot forward.

I could have done without some of Jemisin’s explicit descriptions of sex – they just don’t add anything at all to the story – and some of the cruelty inflicted on children in the book, while more relevant to the plot, was tough to read too. Jemisin’s biggest strength as a writer is the pure storytelling; she’s conceived a world unlike any I’ve seen, remaking the post-apocalyptic earth into something less nightmarish, a testament to the human desire to live and to keep something of civilization going. The dialogue can be clunky, especially when any of the characters is forced to confront something unpleasant or makes a sudden realization. Alabaster is the only well-drawn male character (although that’s kind of a welcome change from novels that don’t have a single three-dimensional female character in sight). It’s such an incredibly compelling story, however, intricate yet internally consistent, around three women you will want to follow to the story’s end … and the sequel, since it turns out this is the start of a new trilogy, with the second book, The Obelisk Gate, already out.

Next up: One of the early Pulitzer winners, the out-of-print Journey in the Dark, by Martin Flavin, which I picked up used because there isn’t even a library copy in the entire state of Delaware.

Mildred Pierce.

I loved James Cain’s noir thriller The Postman Always Rings Twice, and the film adaptation of his novel Double Indemnity is one of my favorite movies of all time, so when I saw his novel Mildred Pierce on sale at Changing Hands in October I picked it up knowing nothing about it other than that HBO had adapted it into a miniseries. It’s a complete departure from those other Cain novels, in theme and in prose style, and in this case the villain isn’t a protagonist but the main character’s narcissist daughter, who contrives to get whatever she wants even if she has to ruin her own mother to get it.

The novel opens with Mildred and her husband, Bert, separating as she kicks him out because of his refusal to stop seeing his mistress, who lives in the same development of Pierce Homes. Bert had been flying high financially until the 1929 crash, losing almost everything because of his decision to invest all of his cash in AT&T stock, but since he was ruined he’s refused to get any sort of job, exacerbating Mildred’s dissatisfaction with him. After he leaves, she tries to support herself and their two daughters, Veda and Ray, by baking and selling pies, but eventually has to get a waitressing job that she considers a little beneath her and has to hide from Veda, her older daughter, a budding sociopath who loathes her mother and the working-class life she’s been handed.

Mildred eventually rises to the point where she opens her own restaurant, then turns it into a small chain of restaurants around greater Los Angeles, but still can’t satisfy Veda and ends up in a couple of disastrous dalliances of her own. Mildred is a strong central character, a feminist in her time who doesn’t need a man to support her and who’s willing to use men to suit her own purposes, but who’s attracted to feckless men who drag her down. She has initiative and a strong work ethic, but lacks the kind of high breeding that Veda, for reasons never explained, believes she herself possesses. Ultimately, Mildred’s choices in men and her subversion of her own priorities to please Veda are her undoing, and the successful post-marriage life she’s created for herself collapses of her own bad decisions.

I found Mildred Pierce a tougher read even than contemporary novels that involve a murder, because there’s such a clear sense that Mildred is heading for catastrophe, one in large part of her own making. Her need for Veda to love her is itself pathological, and she lacks any capacity to see that her own daughter cares nothing at all for her, only for herself. Mildred builds a small business empire, and loses it in a futile effort to make Veda love her. Cain seems to have some empathy for his main character for the first two-thirds of the book, but when she launches her last scheme to gain her daughter’s love and respect, the tone shifts and the admiring language around Mildred’s business savvy (and good fortune) disappears. If Pierce has a real flaw, however, it’s that she’s not quite smart enough for what she wants to achieve, and I can’t see looking down on a character for a lack of intelligence the way we might for a character who’s greedy or heartless, like Veda.

Cain’s prose in Postman is descriptive but stark, and it works for a dark novel about murder and betrayal. Here, his descriptive prose still serves him well – I give the man credit, he knew something about food – but the sparse, almost emotionless writing doesn’t match what’s happening on the page. This isn’t a noir novel, but the writing has too much noir in it for the subject matter, and the lack of a second strongly-developed character besides Mildred (Veda is true to life but very one-note) made the book a slower read than it should have been. If you’re interested in Cain’s writing, go with The Postman Always Rings Twice instead.

Next up: Rachel Joyce’s 2012 novel The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, a recommendation from my friend Adnan Virk.

The Doxing of Elena Ferrante.

It was a bad weekend for American journalism, by which I mean it was kind of an atrocious weekend because the standard is already fairly low, with a TIME Inc. division firing its editor-in-chief for, apparently, hiring an adult film actress to write about sports, creating a fake columnist to argue with her, and then lying about the whole thing; and now a New York Post columnist saying Derrick Rose has made a bad first impression on Knicks fans with the “noise of a rape trial.” But all of that is sort of par for the course, especially in our little corner of the journalism world.

The real atrocity, however, was the soi-disant “premier literary-intellectual magazine in the English language,” the New York Review of Books, choosing to out pseudonymous author Elena Ferrante (whose best-selling novel My Brilliant Friend I reviewed this summer) by, among other things, combing through financial and real estate records. It was a malicious, tawdry exercise in placing money over integrity, the sort of yellow journalism we might expect from the Drudge Report or an alt-right site, doxing a woman who’d make it clear she wanted to remain out of the public eye.

The column, written by an Italian journalist, claims that Ferrante, by writing a quartet of bestselling novels, “has in a way relinquished her right to disappear,” while making no actual argument to support this claim, probably because the author – and the NYRB editors who must have died on the way to work that morning, given their abdication of their responsibilities by letting the piece run – can’t do so. There was simply no public need to know at work here. Ferrante is not a public figure, not a politician, not a businessperson seeking tax breaks or handouts, not claiming to be anything at all that she’s not. She’s a successful author who sought to speak through her writing, and to barely speak at all through any other medium.

Outing an author who sought anonymity for its own sake would be bad enough, but here a male reporter has chosen to reveal the identity of a female author who may have (or have had, I suppose) motivations for her secrecy that should, if nothing else, have kept this article from seeing the light of day. What if Ferrante is a victim of domestic abuse, hiding from her former partner? Or a rape or sexual assault victim doing the same? Whatever her reason(s) for choosing to write and remain behind a pseudonym, it is not for any of us to choose to unmask her, to decide that this reason isn’t good enough to maintain the veil … but a woman may choose to hide her identity out of fear of physical harm. This muckraker, with the help of a periodical that aspires to intellectual superiority, has put this woman on blast for no discernible benefit to anyone but the writer and the publication, with no apparent concern whatsoever for whatever physical or emotional consequences Ferrante herself might suffer. Ferrante appears to have been simply too successful for this man or the New York Review of Books to allow her to succeed in peace.

(As of 11 am on Monday, I haven’t heard any response, via email or Twitter, from NYRB. I will update if one appears.)

UPDATE: The woman outed as Ferrante has confirmed the account (in Italian), and has opened a Twitter account (same) to say she will never speak about Ferrante’s books and to call the revelation a “vulgar and dangerous … violation of privacy and norms.”

My Brilliant Friend.

I’ve been guest-hosting the Baseball Tonight podcast this week during Buster’s absence; today’s show featured Eric Karabell and Tim Kurkjian, and yesterday’s show featured Jayson Stark and WATERS singer/serious Dodgers fan Van Pierszalowski, whose newest single, “Fourth of July,” came out last month.

Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels, a quartet of books documenting the lifelong friendship between two women, from early childhood in Naples onward, have sold over a million copies in the U.S. since their translation into English in 2012. All four novels ended up on various bestseller lists. And yet their author is unknown, writing only under a pseudonym, while the stories themselves are mundane, devoid of the violence or suspense that tend to dominate fiction sales. The tetralogy, which Ferrante considers one novel published in four installments (a true bildungsroman), tells a very ordinary story in compelling, realistic detail.

I was aware of the books – it’d be hard to be a bookworm without encountering them at some point – but hadn’t picked one up until Lindsey Adler (writer for Deadspin) recommended them, saying she couldn’t put them down. My Brilliant Friend, the opening novel in the series, did not grab me quite to that extent, but it is a superb work of modern realism and characterization, especially of the two women, who get the kind of depth rarely given to female characters in fiction, even contemporary fiction.

Those two characters, the narrator Elena and her friend Lila, are two halves of a whole, different in many fundamental ways but complementary in times when they’re close to each other. (Like any friendship between kids, this one has its vicissitudes, including periods where they’re not really speaking to each other at all.) Elena is booksmart but has to work to get there; Lila is precocious, autodidactic, but has a devil-may-care attitude to schoolwork and life. Both girls come from poor working families averse to continuing their education; Elena’s family reluctantly permits her to continue her schooling thanks in part to the efforts of her teacher, while Lila’s family won’t hear of it and Lila has to continue her learning on the sly. The possibilities of their lives seem limited to them at an early age, and while Elena has at least the sliver of hope provided by an education, Lila’s only real way out of poverty appears to be through marriage, even though she has the idea for a business and the spirit of an entrepreneur.

The novel lacks the intrigue of a modern bestseller. There’s a murder in their town, but it’s tangential to the main characters and only seems to exist to set up some later circumstances. There’s an affair, with consequences, but again it’s sort of off-screen and serves as backdrop for the younger generation of girls and boys. The town itself is tiny, like Jane Austen’s three or four families in a country village, and the social circle of Elena and Lila is small and constantly rotates them back into view with the same handful of kids. Lila’s withdrawal from school when Elena continues sets them on distinct paths that strain their friendship but, apparently, don’t break it, even when the way the two girls are treated by others starts to change.

My Brilliant Friend is definitely an incomplete story; I haven’t bought the next book yet, although I will at some point because I’m interested in what the future holds for the two characters and found Ferrante’s spare, descriptive prose highly readable if a bit dry. The novel doesn’t end on a cliffhanger, which would be untrue to its spirit as a story of two ordinary lives and the bond between these two women. It just leaves you wanting to know where they’re going next.

Next up: I just finished Olja Savi?evi?’s strange postmodern novel Adios, Cowboy and have begun Michael Ondaatje’s novel The Cat’s Table.

The Handmaid’s Tale.

My draft blog post on Jacob Nix’s pitching and Dillon Tate’s role is up for Insiders.

Margaret Atwood’s award-winning dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale had been on my radar for years, both as a book recommended by others and something I knew I should read given its genre and critical acclaim. It is a remarkable, harrowing, often infuriating novel of a very specific type of dystopian society, one that goes beyond mere questions of personal freedom to probe issues of gender roles and identities, as well as the difficulty of regaining any sort of agency under severe repression designed to strip subjects of that very power.

In The Handmaid’s Tale, the United States has fallen somewhere in the late 1980s, replaced in a violent coup by a fundamentalist Christian state, one that imposes strict Biblical prohibitions on nearly all areas of life. Women are now second-class citizens by statute, deprived of the ability to work, to drive, to assemble, to read, even to think for themselves. Decisions about their reproductive lives are made largely by the state, which is entirely dominated by older white men. Think modern-day Saudi Arabia. Or Texas.

The narrator, known simply by her assigned name of Offred, is a handmaid, a role of a highly specific form of sexual slavery. Handmaids are assigned to older men in powerful positions whose wives, due to age or other conditions, can no longer bear children. Their role is to try to bear their masters – Atwood doesn’t use that term, but I don’t see a better one – a child, after weaning which they’ll be assigned to a new house and a new master, while the child will be reared by the master and his capital-W Wife. Women who refuse to subject to this new order are sent to the Colonies, an unspecified location where they engage in manual labor from farmwork to cleaning up environmental disasters, or are simply disappeared.

Offred’s story is made all the more uncomfortable because she’s one of the first generation of Handmaids, and was ripped out of her old life where she was married with a young daughter, both of whom are now gone – to where exactly I won’t say to avoid spoiling it, but there’s nothing comforting about any of it. The idea of a regime so repressive that it would break up families for religious/political reasons seems so far-fetched, and yet we still have elements in this country fighting federal orders that should force them to recognize same-sex marriages. (Atwood, herself an ardent humanist, places surprisingly little blame here at the feet of the unspecified sect in charge of the new nation, apparently called Gilead, instead showing the religion as the tool of the oppressors.) When Offred’s master, called the Commander, tries to initiate a relationship with her that’s more than their perfunctory monthly Ceremony of sex – one so bizarre the reader can only wonder how Atwood came up with it – it begins the unraveling of Offred’s little world, one that replaced happiness with a modicum of stability, bringing back actual emotions beyond her regular state of depression and thoughts of suicide.

While The Handmaid’s Tale has a superficial purpose as a warning to all of us about how easily a repressive element like this might take over a previously peaceful, democratic society, or simply to caution us that such groups always exist at the fringes and will try to pounce on any opening they might see to exert their will on others, Atwood’s primary purpose seems to be explore the plight of a woman in a hopeless condition of subjugation. Can such a subject find any reason for hope beyond impossible dreams of a reunion with her family (where there’s life, there’s hope)? How can she claim some sort of agency – here, a capacity to form a desire for action, then to act upon it of her own will – within the confines of a societal structure that deprives her of everything right down to her identity, reducing her to a mere vessel for the propagation of the species? When she even has limited ability to choose whether to live or die, can such a woman find any form of freedom, and are such forms – like illicit sex – worth pursuing simply because they represent a rebellion against oppression? Offred learns of other handmaids who’ve taken their own lives, an expression of their limited agency, and ultimately encounters other “fallen” women who’ve taken to using sex for the same purpose.

Where Atwood might have gone further is in exploring the reasons why victims of such repressive regimes are not more willing to resist. In her alternate history, many women are willing participants in the scheme that subjugates their compatriots, becoming instructor-disciplinarians in reeducation centers set up to turn formerly independent women into Handmaids, or snitching on subversive or illegal activities to try to curry small, temporary favor with their overlords. There is a resistance movement, but it appears to be small and weak, and the idea that women, who constitute just over half the population, would be demoted to the status of mere chattel without more of a fight seemed unlikely to me. Atwood does give us a secondary character, Janine, who seems to embody Shakespeare’s frailty-of-woman, with her excessive emotional displays and subservience to any authority, male or female, that seeks dominion over her. Janine’s character is alternately pitied and despised by Offred and the other Handmaids, but their tacit acceptance of their fate is no different than her explicit version.

Discussing the issue of non-resistance – which is a major philosophical question that arises when we examine real autocratic regimes, notably the Third Reich – further might have led Atwood into the trap that far too many science- or speculative-fiction novels fall, providing excessive detail about the world and its inception, which ruined both Rainbows End and The Diamond Age for me. I’m glad she provided less detail here rather than more if the cost was giving us a lengthy exposition on, say, the power structure of Gilead. It wasn’t until near the end of the book that it became clear that the former university converted for the use of the government’s secret police and for events like the “Salvaging” was actually Harvard, more evidence of Atwood’s willingness to forego irrelevant details to focus on the plot and her themes.

There is another dimension to this book that will always be beyond me, as a man, because I’ve experienced none of the discrimination or even condescension that women face in what is still a patriarchal society; as a white, straight male, I don’t even have a good analogue on which I can draw. The horror of having her daughter taken from her and given to another childless family is always present with Offred, and that was the point with which I had the hardest time because it was the one aspect of her de facto captivity that I could imagine. Nothing else would drive me to madness so quickly.

Next up: Ann Leckie’s debut novel Ancillary Justice, winner of the 2014 Hugo, Nebula, Clarke, and Locus Awards.

The Left Hand of Darkness.

I have three Insider posts up on recent moves, one on the Heyward/Miller swap, one on Toronto signing Russell Martin, and a third omnibus post covering Hellickson, Moncada, Burnett, and La Stella/Vizcaino. Also, if you missed my annual boardgames ranking, I posted that on Tuesday.

Ursula K. Le Guin won two Hugo Awards for novels, one for The Dispossessed, which I read earlier this year (and loved), and one for the book I just finished, The Left Hand of Darkness , a much stranger book in almost every respect. Set on a planet that suffers near-permanent winter, the novel manages to explore questions of political philosophy and economy while also delving into the still-current question of gender identity and whether gender is a biological or social construct, even though she wrote the book in the late 1960s.

On Gethen, the planet where the entire novel takes place, the still-human residents have evolved over tens of thousands of years to become hermaphroditic, mostly sexless until their mensual period of “kemmer,” a point in the hormonal cycle when that person’s male or female reproductive organs become capable of procreation for a few days. That means that a Gethenian can be a mother to one child and father to another, producing a different societal concept of families. The protagonist, Genly Ai, is an envoy sent from the Ekumen, the book’s united federation of planets (so to speak) that is hoping to invite Gethen into its alliance, which focuses primarily on the sharing of knowledge and limited trade. Ai is distrusted by two separate governments, one a loose, feudal monarchy, the latter a Soviet-style command structure, and finds he has just one Gethenian he can trust, the disgraced adviser Estraven. The second half of the book puts the two of them on a life-or-death journey across desolate, snowbound country, where Ai is forced to reconsider his own aloof, perhaps ignorant attitude toward the character of the Gethenians, including the influence of their mostly genderless existence on their development as humans.

While The Left Hand of Darkness is largely praised as an early feminist sci-fi novel, reading it today it came across as a broader exploration of gender identity questions and to what extent growing up in a two-gender society (that is still relatively intolerant of anyone with gender dysphoria, or even folks who aren’t strictly heterosexual) defines our characters as individual. In a society where roles are not defined by gender because gender doesn’t exist, many questions of equality go away, as do the narrow types of personalities considered acceptable for each gender. All Gethenians Ai encounters exhibit tendencies he considers “effeminate” – the use of the term itself even indicates the trouble he has defining people as “he” or “she” – and others he calls “masculine,” but those terms come from his own experience and have no meaning outside of the two-gender context. Increasing his understanding while suffering the privations of a trip across a glacier with Estraven – who, like most Gethenians, lacks the testerone-driven strength of a biologically male human – becomes essential to the success of his overall mission, if and when he survives.

The political aspects of Ai’s quest dominate the first half of the novel as he first fails to achieve his objectives in the monarchist nation of Karhide, then travels to the totalitarian Orgoreyn, only to get caught up in the infighting among that nation’s 33-member politburo. Much of his difficulty stems from widespread skepticism that he’s actually an alien – he looks similar to Gethenians, just taller, darker in complexsion, and of course of a single gender – and the rest comes from doubt over the peaceful nature of his mission. He spends two years in Karhide, but is hesitant to commit to bringing the ship with the rest of his trade mission (eleven others, all kept in stasis so they aren’t aging while waiting for the call) to Gethen, even though it would likely seal the agreement with the Karhidish monarch. Le Guin’s aim here is vague until Ai crosses the border, at which point she unloads on the Soviets, which I’m sure was a lot more powerful or shocking in 1969 when the book was first published than it is today. We’ve been too desensitized to the abuses of authoritarian regimes to be affected by Ai’s plight in a forced-labor camp.

My one complaint with Left Hand is Le Guin’s use of phony dialect and terminology, something a lot of fantasy and sci-fi writers do, presumably to make the whole setting seem more real to readers but instead just coming off as confusing and, to my eyes, a little juvenile. I don’t know why Le Guin needed to create a whole new calendar with names for months and days, all summarized in a appendix at the end of the book. I don’t know why she needed so many new terms for government officials; it seems like an imagination run wild, without the guiding hand of an editor to say, hey, you’re just going to make readers lose their focus on the plot. It’s too strong and thoughtful a novel to waste time on trivial word changes, and given how well the gender identity themes still hold up over 40 years later, a book that deserves a much wider audience than just the sci-fi crowd.

Next up: I’m reading two books at once now, W. Somerset Maugham’s The Painted Veil as my main read while also trying to read Carlos Fuentes’ The Death of Artemio Cruz in the original Spanish.

Little Women.

I’ve been busy this weekend, with Insider posts reacting to the Jhonny Peralta signing with St. Louis and the Brian McCann signing with the Yankees. I’ll continue posting reaction pieces as needed this week. I’ll also post an updated “gift guide for cooks” piece here on Monday.

I actually read Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women when I was in third grade or so, as it was one of a series of abridged, illustrated classics I’d been tearing through as fast as my parents could buy them. I remembered the basics of most of the plots, including Edgar Allen Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Terror (“The Telltale Heart,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “The Junebug,” and, surprisingly for a book aimed at kids, “The Cask of Amontillado”), as well as bits and pieces of Alcott’s book – enough to understand that episode of Friends when it aired.

I didn’t think that version of Little Women counted for the purposes of reading the entire Bloomsbury 100, so I tackled the adult version last week. (The book also appears on the Guardian top 100 list.) I knew the book would be sentimental and more geared toward female readers, but I was surprised by many elements of it. There’s a latent feminist streak in it, one that at least treats its female characters as independent-minded individuals, equal to the men in spirit if not in the eyes of society, although in the end the women do settle in one way or another for marriage and motherhood. That feminist bent was quickly overshadowed by the rising tide of feminist novels where gender inequality led to tragedy, like The Awakening, Madame Bovary, and Effi Briest, so Alcott’s feminism feels very dated today.

However, the novel also represents a different twist on the utopian novels of the time period; rather than describing a future, technical utopia, Alcott instead presents a version of her contemporary world only tangentially affected by the ills of the age. The four little women of the title are the March sisters, Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy, and their father is serving as a chaplain in the Union Army during the Civil War, leaving them in tight circumstances but not poverty, which is something they see but don’t experience. Their father is wounded, but returns home and survives, another example of tragedy coming close but not hitting home. Across the two parts of the book – it was published in two volumes, the second coming after the first had proven a resounding commercial success – only one significant tragedy visits the March household, that in the second book and with enough advance warning to the reader that by the time it happens it’s almost cathartic. Rather than depict life as it should or might be, the type of fantastic scenario you’d find in News from Nowhere or Looking Backward, Alcott gives us life as we’d like it to be: Full of love and happiness, without serious setbacks or disasters, where most of our worries end up for nothing at all.

There’s also a coming-of-age element to Little Women that I don’t recall seeing in any earlier novel, at least not in English or American literature, where the subject was female. Boys in literature came of age; girls got married to those boys as needed. Alcott gives her girls life, with distinct personalities and differing aims. Each has some rite of passage in the first book, all of which influences their fates in the second. The one character who stuck with me most when I read the book as a child still stood out today, as Jo was Alcott’s stand-in for herself, a wilful, clever girl, forebear to Dorothea of Middlemarch (who had Jo’s intellectual bent but ruined herself in a bad marriage), and by the end of Little Women its most essential character. I wondered as a kid if the presence of a character named Jo on the series The Facts of Life, which (after Jo’s arrival) focused on four teenaged girls living together at a boarding school, was an homage to Alcott’s book, especially as both girls shared tomboyish looks and attitudes and had the same dislike of societal rules and authority.

Next up: I knocked off H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds last week, having heard the Orson Welles broadcast but never read the book, and am now a third of the way through another Bloomsbury 100 title, Herman Hesse’s Narcissus and Goldmund.

The Poisonwood Bible

Barbara Kingsolver’s Orange Prize-nominated novel The Poisonwood Bible is a mixed bag of extremes: It’s one of the most authentic works of historical fiction I’ve come across, evoking a time, place, and culture with precise details while also serving to educate the reader without ever feeling didactic. It also draws its plot from diverse works of classical literature, notably King Lear, yet doesn’t feel the least bit derivative. However, the novel rests on the backs of four female characters who are so thinly drawn that you’d have to put them all together to get a complete, well-rounded woman.

The Poisonwood Bible follows Nathan Price, an evangelical preacher who, in 1959, drags his family on a dangerous mission to spend a year preaching the Gospel in a remote village in what was then known as the Belgian Congo but was also on the brink of an implosion that still echoes today, two names and four national leaders later. Nathan never speaks directly to the reader, however, as the book is narrated by his wife, Orleanna, and his four daughters – superficial Rachel; daddy’s girl Leah; Leah’s twin sister Adah, mute and slightly disabled by hemiplagia yet highly intelligent; and the innocent and much-younger Ruth May. Nathan is an ordeal in and of himself, one increased exponentially by their move to the heart of Africa, to conditions for which they are wholly unprepared. Nathan is as one-dimensional as the women in his family, stubborn, misogynistic, driven by the shame of a wartime injury that has left him shell-shocked yet with the veneer of functional behavior. Like Lear, Nathan loses his daughters one by one through his increasingly erratic and foolhardy behavior, eventually losing his wife, the last one to truly abandon him emotionally, when his choices provoke tragedy with no recourse.

Kingsolver spent a year in the Republic of Congo around 1962, after independence and the bulk of the events depicted in this book, but her knowledge of the country, its terrain, and its culture suffuses The Poisonwood Bible as thoroughly as if it were a country spawned entirely by her own imagination. The natives of the small village to which the Prices move are given respectful treatment, neither denigrated as noble savages nor elevated as wise shamen, just shown as regular people surviving in a difficult environment and demonstrating a degree of empathy that is somewhat foreign to our get-off-my-lawn culture today. The Prices’ inability to adjust to local agriculture, and Nathan’s refusal to accept or even solicit help from local women who farm with more success, is a harbinger for the ultimate failure of their entire mission, and a metaphor for the failure of Western attempts to graft our culture, religion, and even our economic philosophies on to a country that is, itself, a Western-created fiction.

Those one-dimensional characters ended up detracting greatly from the book for me, especially through the last third or so as the daughters’ ability to narrate long stretches of the story increases with their age. The kindest interpretation I can conceive is that Kingsolver intended for each of the female characters to represent a specific aspect of womanhood – maternity, beauty, intellect, fidelity, innocence – yet even if this is true, the format limits the potential for any of these women to grow over the course of the novel, especially the children as they become adults. Leah and Adah mature the most, with Leah shifting her deep allegiance from her father to her eventual husband while Adah, forced by a cataclysmic emotional trauma, must overcome both that and her physical handicap. Yet none of the women spoke with a compelling voice, not even the rhyming, backwards-talking, poetry-quoting Adah, who was interesting but whose extreme rationality came with a coldness that kept me at arm’s length. Rachel never quite grows up all the way, still displaying the same peculiar combination of a lack of self-awarness and an obsession with appearances that makes her earlier narration so hard to read.

If you read primarily for plot and enjoy historical fiction, however, Poisonwood sings in both departments. Kingsolver offers tiny bits of foreshadowing without making the book’s handful of plot twists too obvious, and as the book nears its conclusion its pace quickens to avoid reader fatigue. While Kingsolver’s prose is undeniably American, her ability to paint a picture of life in central/sub-Saharan Africa fits in with writers like Achebe, wa Thiong’o, and Adichie who spent much of their lives in the region. It isn’t a pleasant feeling for those of us who grew up and live in comfort and blissful ignorance here, but there’s merit in a reminder that these conditions existed just 50 years ago – and still exist in many parts of the world today.

Next up: Back in August of 2011, I spent much of a game in Lake Elsinore chatting with two readers, one of whom recommended King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa. I finally picked up the book the other day at Tempe’s Changing Hands bookstore, figuring this was the ideal time to read it, and through 100 pages it’s quite compelling.

The Golden Notebook.

I’ve got a piece up today previewing the top 30 prospects for the 2013 draft.

Do you know what people really want? Everyone, I mean. Everybody in the world is thinking: I wish there was just one other person I could really talk to, who could really understand me, who’d be kind to me. That’s what people really want, if they’re telling the truth.”

Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, #48 on The Novel 100 and part of the TIME 100, is apparently a landmark in feminist literature as well as a rumination on the empty promises of communism, written by an author who had herself become disillusioned with both the philosophy and the British branch of the Party. Lessing attacks the novel’s traditional structure with a post-modern twist, weaving five narratives together across roughly 600 pages before the book culminates in one short story that attempts to reconcile fact with her protagonist’s own literary voice, a structure that challenges as it confuses.

That protagonist, Anna Wulf, is a divorced mother of a young daughter and a once-successful writer who has spent years unable to write a follow-up to her one novel, a wartime story that was commercially and critically successful and now spawns a series of comical attempts by English and American producers to film a bastardized version of it that takes its name but scarcely any of its plot. Anna and her best friend, Molly, are both little-c communists who have drifted out of the party and are gradually sliding into a passive socialism, which becomes a central conflict between Molly and her ex-husband, a successful financier, over their joint custody of their son, Tommy.

The golden notebook of the title doesn’t appear until the end of the novel, but we do read four other notebooks Anna has kept over the years, recounting her experiences with a group of white communist activists in Rhodesia, her time in the British Communist Party, an unfinished novel based on her own doomed love affair with a married man, and a more traditional journal where she records more mundane events as well as dreams and conversations with her therapist. The golden notebook represents her attempt to use fiction to bring together all four narratives as well as the more recent events of her life with Molly and a love/hate affair she has with an American communist who fled the blacklist and McCarthyist movement.

The one other distinguishing feature of The Golden Notebook is its unusually frank and graphic depictions of sex and biological functions, not unusual today but certainly so for the era in which it was published, particularly since its author is female. I imagine the novel was shocking in its time, although I was more surprised at how perfunctory the descriptions of sex were, not just anti-romantic, but clinical and sometimes even violent. The passage on menstruation is just as graphic, so while I saw it as an obvious metaphor for her own anger over societal prescriptions on gender roles, I also found it shocking to see a female writer write something so critical of her own female-ness, even if it was solely in a biological sense.

The narrative structure of the novel makes sense given where Lessing is taking us, but I found it incredibly confusing because of the shifts in time and the use of metafiction that is itself a thinly-veiled rendition of an actual life event belonging to the novel’s central character. It’s a hard book to put down for a day and return to without some thought as to who’s on the stage and in what time period the current scene is taking place. As someone who reads quickly, I found that offputting, even though Lessing’s efforts to converge all five narratives in that final bit of metafiction in the golden notebook are ultimately successful and likely part of why this novel remains a critical favorite.

I also found the metafictional Anna much more difficult to empathize with than the “real” Anna, who is herself flawed but more able to view her own decisions clearly, because the fictional version is the authoress of her own destruction within the book. The fact that her paramour is a lying cad can’t excuse her from failing to see that her involvement with a married man who has no intention of abandoning his wife – and whose wife is clearly suffering from her husband’s infidelities – or from the consequences when he inevitably flees from the affair as well.

The Golden Notebook fits in with many of the critically-acclaimed novels I read from these “greatest books” lists, an intelligent, thought-provoking, well-written book that deals with the larger (or largest) issues in life, but ultimately falls short on plot and character. I never felt driven to find out what was going to happen with the central characters, and the one Big Event within the book is dealt with swiftly enough that it becomes secondary to Anna’s journals. That all makes it a good book in terms of quality, but not one I’d be driven to read again.

Next up: I just finished Sergio de la Pava’s strange, often darkly funny debut novel A Naked Singularity (just $5.13 on Kindle) and have started Jonathan Lethem’s sci-fi hard-boiled detective novel Gun, with Occasional Music, the latter an old recommendation from one of you.