Review: Wit’s End, Karen Joy Fowler

The beginning: A woman called Rima, the last surviving member of her family, comes to live with her godmother, a famous mystery writer, in Santa Cruz. Addison was estranged from Rima’s father years ago, for reasons Rima has never known, and Rima has come to Santa Cruz partly to find out whether there was anything more than friendship between her father and her godmother. While living at Addison’s mansion (called Wit’s End), Rima becomes fascinated by Addison’s fans, whose online presence has given Addison’s fictional detective a life of his own.

Damn, Wit’s End (affiliate links: Amazon, B&N, Book Depository) is hard to describe. Hard to describe, but good!

The end (spoilers in this section only, so skip down to “the whole” if you don’t want to know): Here are a bunch of characters whose names I do not recognize, but never mind. The major mystery is solved — Addison and Rima’s father Bim became estranged because Addison (inadvertently, but Bim thought it was on purpose) put into her book a true story of how Bim brought about someone else’s murder at the hands of a cult leader. Oh, that’s sad. There are a few other things solved too, that I didn’t think to wonder about, like that Addison turns out to have been the daughter of (real live) cult leader William E. Riker. I enjoy Karen Joy Fowler’s extremely weird blending of fact and fiction.

The whole: I enjoy Karen Joy Fowler’s extremely weird blending of fact and fiction. (I said that a second ago but maybe you missed it because you weren’t reading the spoilers section.) If you aren’t already obsessed with cults — which going from her short stories and novels, Karen Joy Fowler is — you may not know that the Holy City is a real place, and William E. Riker was a real person, and the mysterious fires that destroyed Holy City buildings after it was sold were real fires and probably arsons. And if Karen Joy Fowler hadn’t thanked the owner of Holy City Art Glass in the acknowledgements, I wouldn’t have known any of that was real. It makes the book even more intriguing, as it’s a book about a fictional book that fictionalizes the cult and its history.

I’ve said recently on the podcast that I like the depiction in books of miscommunications between characters, and Wit’s End is full of these. Although the book is from Rima’s point of view, Fowler regularly tosses in remarks about what Rima thinks is being said or intended versus what really is being sad or intended. For instance:

“Martin’s always welcome.” Addison glanced at Rima.

 

Here is what the glance meant: Don’t worry. No way will Martin stay the night. Here’s what Rima thought it meant: I know I said you’d have the whole floor to yourself, and now I’m sorry I said so. …

 

“You’ll like Martin,” Tilda told Rima, and from the darkness behind Tilda’s shoulder, Addison gave Rima another look, hard and right at her.

 

This look meant: Martin’s a conniving little snot. Here’s what Rima thought it meant: I know I said you’d have the whole floor to yourself, and now I’m sorry I said so.

Lovely, right? As in We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, Fowler is fantastic at depicting the space between people, both the closeness and the inescapable separateness. The book begins with Rima having all the questions and Addison (presumably) all the answers, and it ends the other way around, with Rima understanding what Addison never has, and explaining to her the parts of it that won’t cause unnecessary pain. They are not brought closer by any of this; they are only brought closer by proximity and the shared desire for affection.

Fowler’s gift for weird, specific detail, which in her short fiction can feel like a build-up to a cymbal crash that never comes, serves her well in Wit’s End. The truth of Holy City, California mixes in seamlessly with the imagined world of Addison’s books. Addison’s home, the setting for the whole story, was formerly a bed-and-breakfast and before that belonged to a woman who survived the Donner Party. Addison’s mystery novels are created on the basis of intricate dollhouses representing the crime scenes, which Addison makes in exquisite detail prior to writing the book — a detail clearly based on the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, a series of model crime scenes created in the mid-1900s by an heiress that continue to be used to train police officers in forensics. These are the kind of weird yet lifelike details that make me so fond of Karen Joy Fowler (she’s a magpie like me).

So: Recommended, but We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves puts the weirdness to better use ultimately. Not that I’m comparing. Comparisons are odious.

American cover
American cover
British cover
British cover

Cover report: They are both a bit boring. I am going with the simpler cover, the British one, partly because the creepy eye freaks me out, and partly because yellow is my favorite color.

Review: Talking About Detective Fiction, P.D. James

Okay, I know you remember that I said no more books I can get at home. I know I know I know. I realize this post means that Diary of a Provincial Lady was not my last exception to the rule. Actually the rule was, I will only read books that I cannot get when I am at home, unless the author gives his or her name as two initials followed by a surname. Please do not be perturbed by my Orwellian alteration of a previously established rule.

P.D. James, acclaimed writer of detective fiction, has a number of things to say about the genre, as you may imagine. She spoke of Agatha Christie and of Dorothy Sayers, and of how detective writers enjoy (as they should) a lovely country house mystery, with a finite number of suspects to play with. I liked it when she complimented Agatha Christie. I appreciate compliments to Agatha Christie’s cleverness at mysteries: James gave an example of a book in which a butler peers at the clock; and you are given to understand that this is a clue relating to times and dates, when in fact the clue is that the butler is short-sighted. That is clever! Agatha Christie! She’s clever!

I don’t read that much detective fiction, actually, and thus I have very little to say about this book. Agatha Christie (for the cleverness) and Dorothy Sayers (for the superb writing and for Harriet Vane) and Elizabeth Peters (for being hilarious) and that, I believe, is it. But I like reading books about books – I have made a special section on my TBR list for books about books, although it is rather short because there are not enough books about books. I am contemplating renaming the section and including books about words in it as well.

What I do have to say about this book: P.D. James said something about the “reprehensible expedient” of reading the end of a book. Reprehensible expedient! I do not do it as a reprehensible expedient! I do it because it is joyful! P.D. James hurt my feelings when she said that. I snapped the book shut and said “YOU are a reprehensible expedient!” And then I remembered that P.D. James is ninety, and it’s not nice to call ninety-year-old women a reprehensible expedient. Or anyone really. In my defense, it is unbelievably hot this week, and being hot all day every day makes me a less nice person.

My method of reading is perfectly valid and I stand by it. But I have been considering doing an experiment later on this year, maybe in September, where I take one whole month, and throughout that entire month, I don’t read ahead in any book whatsoever for any reason. What do you think? Attempt the experiment, in a spirit of true scientific inquiry, risking the possibility that I won’t enjoy any single book I read in September? Or maintain my customary reading methods without a sustained effort to appreciate the other side’s view?

Other people that read it:

A Striped Armchair
A Work in Progress
Fleur Fisher Reads
Lost in Books
A Bibliophilist’s Reading List

Did I miss yours?

Reading Lolita in Tehran, Azar Nafisi

This is not so much a review, as a big political thing involving this book and the author of the last one I read.  I decided to make it a separate post from the one about Iran: A People Interrupted.  Mainly because otherwise the post would have been too disjointed; and because the stuff I want to write about right now is really about Reading Lolita in Tehran.  See, Hamid Dabashi really does not like Azar Nafisi.  Y’all, he really doesn’t like her – not in a box, not with a fox, not in a house, not with a mouse.  Look what he says about her:

Nafisi portrays Iran as a land where crazed (clergy) men are abusing virgin houris who are impatiently reading Lolita while waiting to be liberated by George W. Bush and his Christian Crusaders.

Sheesh.  Okay, now, I don’t like to dismiss things that people say without thinking about them thoroughly.  So I read Hamid Dabashi’s article in Al-Ahram about Reading Lolita in Tehran, and then I read a few other articles about it, and then I reread Reading Lolita in Tehran, to see what I thought.  And I end up feeling about Dabashi’s writing on Nafisi the way I feel about Philip Pullman’s writing on C.S. Lewis (except not so defensive).  He makes criticisms that I don’t think are invalid:  Why doesn’t Nafisi talk about reading Iranian writers?  There’s zillions!  Why does she focus so much on women’s victimization, rather than their political and personal agency?  And the cover – it’s really a picture of two Iranian girls reading a revolutionary newspaper, and to suggest that they’re reading Lolita takes away the true context of that picture, and the fact of women’s political participation in Iran.  (That’s not Nafisi but her publishers – and it is obnoxious, and it’s lazy.)  And Nafisi gives America SUCH A PASS in this book.

But even though I agree with him on some things (like I do with Philip Pullman on Lewis’s sexism etc), I think the level of vitriol is uncalled-for.  I think the validity of (many of) his points are undermined by his obvious, passionate, personal dislike of Nafisi.  Look at this here:

The publication of Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran is the most cogent contemporary case of yet another attempt at positing English literature yet again as a modus operandi of manufacturing trans-regional cultural consent to Euro- American global domination. The factual evidence of the connection of Azar Nafisi to the US leaders of the neoconservative movement and her systematic deprecation of Iranian culture, and by extension local and regional cultures of actual or potential resistance to the US empire, glorifying instead a canonised inner sanctum for an iconic celebration of “Western literature,” are additional factors in placing her squarely at the service of the predatory US empire–the service delivered via the most cliché-ridden invocation of the most retrograde Oriental fantasies of her readers in the United States and Europe.

So Dabashi notes that teaching English literature has been fundamental to colonialization of various territories by the British and American empires, and criticizes Nafisi’s book for “glorifying a canonised inner sanctum for an iconic celebration of ‘Western literature'”.  This bugged me because in his book he talks about a list of books that were forbidden by the shah and his secret police, and how he used that list as “my core curriculum…the map of my liberal education”, and then goes on to detail the contents of the list – Jack London, John Steinbeck, Brecht, Zola, Stendhal, Shakespeare, etc.

Uh-huh.

I don’t want to be simplistic about this though.  Dabashi’s book later talks about major Iranian writers as well as works from our canon – so I guess he is annoyed that Nafisi’s class wasn’t reading these writers as well.  I can see how this would be annoying, given Iran’s grand literary tradition (Dabashi has a lot to say about this in Iran: A People Interrupted).  But I think it’s quite a leap to say that (through Reading Lolita in Tehran) Nafisi is therefore “a necessary ideologue in George W. Bush’s empire-building project”.

I don’t hold any brief for Azar Nafisi, God knows.  Her political leanings are very much not mine.  However, Reading Lolita in Tehran is well-written and a joy to read for that reason.  I don’t see any problem with her finding refuge in Western literature – it’s a matter of personal taste.  I do not love the idea that she somehow has a responsibility to portray those aspects of Iranian culture that Dabashi wants America to know about.  I am also not comfortable with the way Dabashi dismisses Nafisi’s description of her and her students’ experiences under the Islamic Republic as being solely (or primarily) politically motivated.  Actually, his dismissiveness of womens’ experiences irritates the hell out of me.  Like this, from another article:

The manufactured success of Nafisi’s “Reading Lolita in Tehran” opened the floodgates for women’s accounts of their abuses in Afghanistan and Iraq to appear in American bookstores, precisely at the time that the Bush administration unleashed its attacks on those same countries. Women were being abused by their men, their culture, and their religion! Someone must do something about these horrors! The U.S. army was doing precisely that, liberating these women, one Abu Ghraib torture chamber and Falluja massacre at a time. What is lost in this sordid scenario is the fact that women in these, as in all other, areas have been active agents of their own destiny, defying the culturally inherited and colonially acquired measures of their oppressions and abuses in terms domestic to their own history and culture. They need not have waited to read “Lolita.”

The problem being, apparently, that the women chose a bad time to talk about the fact that they’re being oppressed and abused.  What should they do, shut up about it until Bush is out of office?  The fact is, when Afghanistan and Iraq are in the news, that’s when books about Afghanistan and Iraq are going to sell.  Blame the free market, not the writers.  Either these women tell their stories to America now, or they may not be able to tell them at all.

An aside, because I really like the book: Reading Lolita in Tehran is a gorgeous book, and totally worth reading.  Just be aware that there’s more to the story than what she says (of course!).  Read it!  And then come back here and tell me whether you thought, when you finished it, MY GOD WHAT ARE WE WAITING FOR?  WE MUST INVADE IRAN INSTANTLY.  Cause, um, that’s not what I thought when I read it.

If you managed to get through this – what do you think?  To what extent should memoirists/nonfiction writers tailor their books to the political climate?  When they have lived through something terrible, what sort of balance should they strike between portraying their experiences as they lived them, and highlighting the political and personal complexities of the environment and individuals that oppressed them?

Ex Libris, Anne Fadiman

Ah, books about books.  I read this because I can’t get ahold of Nick Hornby’s much-touted books about books.  Anne Fadiman writes about all kinds of aspects of loving books: marrying libraries, loving your books, plagiarism – all kinds of things.  I liked some of these essays a lot – the one about marrying libraries made me wince because I could picture myself agonizing over how to organize and sort out my books with someone else’s.

I was interested to read an essay from the perspective of a woman who loves books and doesn’t mind destroying them.  (I wrote, destroying me, and didn’t notice until I was about to hit publish on this post.  That should tell you how I feel about it.)  I’m what she calls a courtly lover, and it has never kept me from enjoying the hell out of my books.  I don’t understand the carnal love that she and her family feel for books.  I just don’t.  Even after she explained it, and talked about all the things that courtly lovers are missing, I couldn’t understand how anyone could think this way.  I still own the copy of Jane Eyre that I read when I was eight years old.  Ditto Little Women, and Peter Pan (a little younger), and all of Edward Eager’s books except for Magic or Not, which has gotten lost over the years, to my serious distress.  Imagine if I had smooshed the pages all around or God, torn them out and thrown them away.

To me, books get better the longer you have them.  Whenever I pick up my copy of Little Women, I remember how excited I was to get it, and how pleased I was because it was huge, and I had to sit with it open on my lap because it was too heavy for me to hold up for any period of time.  I have my copy of Caroline B. Cooney’s Among Friends from when I was nine years old, and some girls at school were making my life a misery.  My mother had told me about Among Friends and how it was about a girl in a similar situation to mine, and I remember I was brushing my teeth, and she came into the bathroom and said, “What book do you want more than any other book in the world?” and I said, “Among Friends,” and there it was, she had bought it for me!

I don’t know.  I love that books have a history, and if you treat them like crap, they’ll never grow old enough to have that.  They’ll get all torn up and mussed, and eventually you’ll have to buy a new copy and start all over again.  What about you?  Are you careful of your books?  Do you get attached to specific copies?

Funnily enough, I couldn’t relate to her story about her favorite pen.  At least, not much.  I am a fan of pens, and I’m always looking for the exactly right pen, but I don’t tend to get fond of particular, individual pens.  I miss some pens that I’ve had before, but only because I haven’t been able to find the same pen to replace them once they got lost or ran out of ink.  I always write my stories on the computer, and I have since I was a little bitty girl – my thoughts just flow better that way.  But my books, now, I would be crushed if I lost any of my old books.

Other views:
Stainless Steel Droppings
an adventure in reading
Rose City Reader

The Camel Bookmobile, Masha Hamilton

Recommended by: Read-Warbler

This book is about an American librarian who brings books to rural African places using camels.

I’ll give you that again: She uses CAMELS to bring people BOOKS.

There are no words that adequately express how sad I am that I wasn’t able to finish this book.  It contains BOOKS and CAMELS.  Bringing books to people via camels.  I love books (obviously), and God knows I love camels more than my luggage.  One time I went to a RenFest, and THEY HAD CAMELS there and I RODE ON ONE.  Didn’t even remotely know that I cared about camels until I got there and saw the sign for camels and instead of being like “Medieval Europe wasn’t exactly camelpalooza” in a snide voice, I seized my sister’s arm and plowed in the direction of the camels going CAMELS CAMELS CAMELS CAMELS.

But camels didn’t feature very much in the bits of the book I did get through, and anyway I couldn’t get through it.  There was much bashing the reader over the head with unsubtle things that the characters are thinking, like, Why does the American lady want to bring us books so much?  Doesn’t she know that here in Africa we are educated in other ways?  Books and reading are not the only ways of knowing things.

Practically in those words.  It gave me a headache.  I had to take two tylenol and an aspirin.

Time Was Soft There, Jeremy Mercer

Two months before I’d had a high-profile job with an enviable salary, a sleek black German sedan on lease, an apartment in a fashionable downtown neighborhood, and a collection of not-so-inexpensive shirts and jackets hanging in the closet. Now, there were a few hundred dollars in my pocket, no job or prospect thereof, some clothes jammed into an old handbag, and a bed in a tattered bookstore to call home. All things considered, I couldn’t have been happier.

Recommended by: Kate’s Book Blog

I really liked the idea of this book. It’s a memoir written by a chap who went to live at Shakespeare & Co., a bookshop and temporary residence for writers and artists in Paris. I like memoirs and I like bookshops (God knows) and I like places that collect interesting people; all of these things I like, but I was bored with Time Was Soft There. I think Jeremy Mercer is just not that great a writer. I have probably been spoiled by Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, but when I read a book about all the people in some place, I want them to be interesting and, I don’t know, vivid. Not so much here. I think it’s a shame, because there’s an interesting story to be told here, and Jeremy Mercer just doesn’t do it very well.