Review: The Flying Troutmans, Miriam Toews

Sometimes I think my sense of humor is broken. Take something like The Royal Tenenbaums, which most everyone seems to think is hilarious with a capital H. (Query: When saying something is [adjective] with a capital [A], should [adjective] be capped, or does that make the “with a capital [A]” superfluous?) I saw The Royal Tenenbaums in high school or so, and it just made me feel sad. How is it funny? It’s not funny! It’s sad! Their lives are just sad!

So when I read a review of a dysfunctional-family book that claims it’s soooo funny, just a laugh a minute, I am always rather suspicious. In The Flying Troutmans, Hattie Troutman comes back from France, following a break-up with her pretentious boyfriend, to find her sister Min in a state of collapse. (Min has been suicidal, and very occasionally homicidal, ever since Hattie’s birth.) Unable to decide what to do about Min, Hattie takes Min’s two children, eleven-year-old Thebes and fifteen-year-old Logan, on a cross-country road trip to find the kids’ father, who skipped town years ago. No one is quite sure what’s going to happen when the father gets found.

Actually, The Flying Troutmans was funny. If it hadn’t done that cutesy/nauseating thing of ignoring the existence of quotation marks, I’d have been totally on board with the funny. See:

But, said Logan, a fifteen-year-old could technically live on his own, right?

Okay, bad times are gonna roll, I thought. Logan is planning to run away before we find Cherkis.

No, a fifteen-year-old cannot live on his own, I said.

Pippi Longstocking wasn’t even fifteen, said Thebes, and she–

Yeah, but she was a character in a book, I said.

And she was Swedish, said Logan.

So there would have been a solid safety net of social programs to help keep her afloat, I said. It doesn’t work here.

Heeheehee. I love Pippi Longstocking but, y’all, I desperately hate it when authors choose to eschew quotation marks. It is one of the most peevish of my pet peeves. Why would you ever not use them? Do you just not care that Jesus placed them on earth for our particular consumption? Do you sneer upon the value of correctly placed punctuation and its glorious organizational capacities? USE DAMN PUNCTUATION DAMMIT.

Damn punctuation aside, The Flying Troutmans was very funny. Logan and Thebes and Hattie were all intriguing and realistic characters, plainly fond of each other but not in a Lifetime Movie family snuggles way. That they weren’t constantly talking about their family bonds made it all the more touching when you caught a glimpse of their genuine affection for each other. I particularly loved Hattie’s conversations, or attempts at conversations, with Logan: perfect fifteen-year-old conversations.

BUT.

(I know what you’re thinking. The punctuation thing was my BUT. Whatever, I can have two problems with the same book.)

BUT, I hate an unwarrantedly optimistic ending, and The Flying Troutmans has one. As I was reading the book, I kept thinking that I couldn’t imagine any way the book could end well. Hattie’s sister Min, the kids’  mother, has been trying to kill herself since Hattie was born, and when Hattie visits her in the hospital at the start of the book, Min asks Hattie to help her die. I couldn’t see it ending well, and yet it did. I resent this from Miriam Toews even as I wish to read more of her work.

(trapunto, don’t read this. I think it would piss you off.)

Did y’all see The Royal Tenenbaums? Did you think it was funny? Would you rather have a happy ending that’s not warranted, or an unhappy ending that pays out the issues the book has raised, but makes you feel all sad and empty inside?

Other reviews:

Tales of the Reading Room (thanks for the recommendation!)
Page247
Bookopolis
Fleur Fisher in Her World
Literary License
Back to Books
Monniblog
The Writer’s Pet

Tell me if I missed yours!

Review: Broken Glass Park, Alina Bronsky (translated by Tim Mohr)

FTC darling, I am constantly getting you mixed up with the FCC.  I am always saying, Grrr, that FTC, cranky censorship snarl can’t even say swear words on the television grumble grumble grumble, and then remembering twenty minutes later that I’ve been ranting about the wrong acronym.   Sorry, FTC!  It was unkind of me to call you an ugly poophead and a fascist bastard, even if it was just to my sister!  Also, I thought you’d want to know that I received Broken Glass Park for review from the lovely people at Regal Literary Agency.

What I liked about Broken Glass Park:

  • The protagonist, Sascha, is an orphan.  I love a book about an orphan.  Indeed, the sentence that made me decide to like Love Walked In was “All of Clare’s favorite characters were orphans.”  For I, too, love orphans.  I dote upon orphans.  Especially plucky orphans.
  • Sascha is a fantastic protagonist with a clear, honest voice that drew me into the story straight away.  She’s tough, and she goes after what she wants, but not in an unrealistically sensible and fearless way.  Which is to say: She plans to murder her stepfather when he gets out of prison, lovingly reviewing her options for poison, breaking bottles over his head, and so forth, but when a local newspaper writes a sympathetic article about her stepfather, and she goes to confront the author of the article, she is madly intimidated by the newspaper office.  So right.  Teenagers find it easy to make murder plans and hellishly difficult to navigate adult spaces.  (At least I did.  And so does Polly Whittaker in Fire and Hemlock.)  (Er, I didn’t make murder plans as a teenager.  The other half.  Easily intimidated by having to interact as an adult with adults.)
  • I liked the way Sascha’s backstory unfolds gradually, so that you have mostly figured out what happened by the time the story confirms it.  Rather than trying to build up to a reveal, and BAM, explain everything at once, the book lets you see bits of the picture at a time until the whole thing becomes apparent.  It made the situation sad, rather than sensationalizing it.
  • Sascha’s relationships with her family rang absolutely true: her frustration with her mother’s romantic entanglements, her fierce devotion to her younger half-siblings, and her half-tolerant, half-nasty frustration with her guardian, a relation of her stepfather.  Lovely, lovely, lovely.
  • The end.  It was one of those endings that is emotionally satisfying endings and not too pat.
  • The translation!  Ah, yes, it is not often I have nice things to say about translated works.  I find them a trial.  Unless, of course, I have translated them myself, like The Aeneid and bits of The Metamorphoses, in which case I find them to be the best thing ever because I have conquered them WITH MY WITS (and sometimes a dictionary and nearly always the invaluable input of a commentary or two).  In the case of Broken Glass Park, however, I never felt I was reading in translation.  Props to translator Tim Mohr.
  • Getting this book in the post.  I do not often get new books at all, let alone as delightful treats through the post.  If I can get them used I do it, as I am an impoverished receptionist trying to decide on a Life Plan.  Still, there’s nothing like new books, with their shiny covers and sharp corners.  I was surprised at how excited I was when this one arrived.

What I did not like:

  • You saw this coming: Violence against women. It upsets me.  After finishing this book, I had a nightmare that a guy broke into my apartment and was just engaged in bashing up the mirrors in my bathroom when I woke up and confronted him.  I noticed I was dreaming, tested it by flicking the light switches to see if it changed the light levels in the room (it didn’t), and then went right on having the nightmare.  This was my second unsatisfactory experience of lucid dreaming in two nights.  I was led to believe that if I learned to dream lucidly, I would be able to have whatever sort of a dream I wanted.  I feel like instead of having a scary dream where I tried to figure out ways to get to my car and push the intruder down the stairs, I should have been able to start having a delightful dream where I traveled back in time and met Oscar Wilde and went to Greece and Rome with him and gossiped about the Theban Band.  So, not good.  The violence against women (Sascha herself as well as her mother) was not excessive, nor extensively described, but it upset me anyway.
  • Along the same lines: Sascha’s predictably self-destructive behavior.  It didn’t ring false or anything.  It just made me sad.
  • This one thing that happened with Volker.  Volker is a kind newspaperman who takes Sascha under his wing and takes care of her.  She becomes fast friends with his son Felix, and then THIS THING HAPPENS.  This thing happens that I can’t stand!  It felt out of character for Volker.  I wanted him to be lovely, but I couldn’t actually like him, because there was this thing.  I could not work out what Sascha’s feelings on the matter were, and the whole episode was jarring.

The Volker thing threw the whole rest of the book (until the end) off-kilter for me.  Still, I cannot emphasize enough how impressed I am with the writing and then translating of Sascha’s voice.  I love it when authors (and translators) can make first-person narrations work this well.  (Muriel Barbery, take note.) (Monsters of Men, wish you were here.)

Have you reviewed this too?  Let me know and I will add a link!

Fun Home, Alison Bechdel

I love a memoir, y’all, and you know what I love more than a memoir?  A graphic novel memoir.  Delicious.  My library has a new section on their ever-growing graphic novels shelf, which is Biography.  When I went in yesterday (collecting films for my poor sick little sister and lots of excellent books for me), I took three of the five books from the new wee little section.  Including Fun Home – which I remember the library not having last time I checked, and I was well cross about it.

Fun Home is Alison Bechdel‘s memoir about her father, a closeted gay man who ran a funeral home and was (by accident or design) hit by a truck when she was nineteen.  In the book, she deals with his sexuality and her own, both their struggles with mental illness, and all sorts of things, painstakingly documenting everything with recreated photographs, letters, diary entries, and maps.

The structure of the book is loopy and self-referential, rather than chronological – she returns to crucial moments in her self-discovery and her discoveries about her father, several times in some cases, giving the reader more context each time.  I like this because that is what growing up is like – how you learn new things all the time, and then you come back to something familiar and you have to recast it in your mind, shedding the light of your new experiences on it.

I read an interview with Alison Bechdel where she said that she was nervous about herself as a writer when she began doing this book.  As I was reading it, I was struck by the elegance and thoroughness (for lack of a better word!) of the writing.  Where she’s describing scenes from her childhood, it’s very sensory, evoking the sounds and smells as well as, in the drawings, the sights.  And she is also very self-aware, exploring her own thoughts about and motives in dealing with her father – as an obsessive thought-examiner myself, I wondered whether this was another symptom of her OCD.

As I say, the writing was lovely, but there were times in the book when I thought there were too many words for the pictures – it got a bit frenetic sometimes, and I would have loved to have seen a few full-page or two-page spreads without any words in, to break up the words.

Oh, but she uses the word “perseverate”!  My anxious and obsessive (but self-aware!) family use “perseverate” all the time, just ALL THE TIME, but you don’t see it out there in the world all that often.  Shame because “perseverate” is one of those words that feels defining for my obsessive thinking – like my endless attempts to consider all the sides of any issue, and give a fair hearing to all viewpoints, it sounds like it should be a good thing, so close to “persevere”, which is a good thing.  But in fact it keeps going, past “persevere”, “perseverate”, doing it too much and it’s time to stop.  So I like seeing it being used.  Perseverate.

Bechdel makes use of myths and literature throughout the book – she talks about a book she read at a certain time in her life, then carries on talking about its relevance to her life, her sexuality, her relationship with her father, whatever – while the characters in the panel carry on discussing the book.  I am so impressed by this.  The captions shift focus, but the characters from her past are still paying attention to the literature, and she uses passages from the books/plays/whatever to deepen the meaning of what she says in the captions.  And I am not just praising this technique because there’s a chapter that features The Importance of Being Earnest, making beautiful use of Lady Bracknell’s lines.

(I’m not!  Really!  I mean, do I like it when a book makes reference to Oscar Wilde and how he is funny and brilliant?  Yes!  But do I require more than that to be happy with a book?  …Well.  No.  Actually.  Pretty much, you compliment Oscar Wilde and I am going to look upon you with favor. However, Fun Home would have been great without featuring The Importance of Being Earnest.)

And my perennial problem with memoirs: The Family.  In her acknowledgements, Bechdel thanks her mother and brothers for not trying to stop her from writing this book.  I had to go look up interviews with her – she says that she did let her family read it, and changed some of the things they objected to, and argued for keeping others.  Quote:

Bechdel indefatigably researched her family during the seven years it took to create Fun Home, whose title refers to their common abbreviation for “funeral home.” When her mother found out she was doing a book, Bechdel was cut off: ” ‘No more information about your dad,’ ” Bechdel remembers her saying. “She felt quite betrayed. And justifiably so. Essentially I used information she had given me in confidence over the years.” Currently, although “it’s painful for her to have the information out there,” her mother, Bechdel said, “also understands writing and the imperative of storytelling, and there’s a way that she respects the project, despite her discomfort.”

Eeek!  I feel so anxious about this when I read a memoir!  I am a very private person, and if I had had all these problems in my marriage and my life, I sure as hell wouldn’t want the whole world to know about it.  And look, neither did the mum:

I do feel that I robbed my mother in writing this book. I thought I had her tacit permission to tell the story, but in fact I never asked for it, and she never gave it to me. Now I know that no matter how responsible you try to be in writing about another person, there’s something inherently hostile in the act. You’re violating their subjectivity. I thought I could write about my family without hurting anyone, but I was wrong. I probably will do it again. And that’s just an uncomfortable fact about myself that I have to live with.

I am glad that she acknowledges this – at least part of my concern about memoirs is that the writers aren’t giving any weight to their family’s privacy, and Bechdel, with characteristic self-awareness, makes note that what she did was problematic.  On the other hand, Fun Home is very wondrous and if Alison Bechdel had felt the same way I do about (her mum’s and her own) privacy, it would never have existed.  So I don’t know. Does this bother you when you read memoirs – whether the family wants their secrets aired in public?

Other reviews: things mean a lot, Farm Lane Book Blog, A Life in Books, The Written World, Books for Breakfast, Valentina’s Room, Musings of a Bookish Kitty, A Striped Armchair, Bookish, and tell me if I missed yours!

The Hills at Home, Nancy Clark

“Did someone die in here or what?” ….

“Yes,” she told Andy, “somebody die die in here but I have, of course, since changed the sheets.”

I read about this book here, and felt smugly certain that I would not be, as Powell’s review suggested some would be, “deaf to this novel’s considerable charm”, thus would not have “wandered away long before those scenes [the ones with plot in them] arrive.”  They said it was like Jane Austen, and I suppose I thought that meant gently satirical and not very exciting in a Scarlet Pimpernel way, but nevertheless containing various things for its well-drawn characters to do.

It’s all about a family of Hills, and they all come to live with their Aunt Lily in her large house.  Lily’s brother Harvey comes, and he doesn’t like damn liberals; and histrionic Ginger with her teen daughter Betsy; and out-of-work Alden and his wife Becky and their four children; and Arthur and Phoebe, who are someone’s nephew and his girlfriend but I can’t remember whose because my brain doesn’t have the capacity for all this; and finally a distantly-related sociology student called Andy who wants to study the Hills.  And I think that’s all of them.

I got on pretty well for a while.  The characters were indeed entertaining, if too numerous to be bothered keeping track of (Ms. Clark appeared to feel the same way), and the dialogue could be funny, and everyone thought a number of humorous thoughts, and all.  But seriously, nothing ever happened.  I mean nothing.  They would eat breakfast and go into town and come back from town and talk, but there was nothing ever actually happening.  I appreciate having characters at whom the author pokes gentle fun, and at the same time, that doesn’t make a book.  After a while I found myself flipping through pages trying to discover whether anything, ever, was going to happen to induce change, and when I had pretty well figured out that nothing ever would, I returned the book to the library.

Oh well.  Then I no longer had it to worry about, and I settled down instead and read Tom Finder, which I liked a very great deal more.

Geek Love and True Love

The past few days have been a bit weird, reading-wise.  I was reading Geek Love – recommended to me by Toryssa as an antidote to the trite blahness of Water for Elephants (Water to Elephants?  I can never remember) – and then when I wasn’t reading that, I was reading the Brownings’ letters to each other when they were a-courting.

It’s been strange.  Geek Love is two stories running consecutively: the main character, Olympia, is a hunchback dwarf from a family that deliberately bred freaks in order to make their circus all interesting, and she’s telling the story of her childhood.  And then she’s also got things going on in the present with her tail-having daughter and this woman who wants to give the daughter surgery to de-tail her.  Oh, and Olympia’s brother Arty (who has flippers instead of hands and feet) has a cult of people that get their limbs cut off.  But then *spoiler* the circus blows up.  So oh well.

Interspersed with letters from Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett, in which they are so damn cute that my brain perpetually explodes.  Every time I think I can’t love Robert Browning any more, he says something even sweeter and I have to reset the scale.

And then back to Geek Love with the amputations and the telekinetic Chick kid.  The transitions have been weird.

Sorting through this confusion, I find that I do not care for Geek Love very much.  I didn’t like the family dynamic.  It was creepy, of course, the creepy parents with their creepy plans for the kids, and the creepy siblings with their creepy behavior, but it was sort of predictably creepy.  Creepy in ways you really could have anticipated.  Geek Love was such a strange book that I kept losing track of how blah the family dynamic actually was, but after a while I’d notice some discontentment feelings and discover that the source of the feelings was that the relationships between the family, while dysfunctional, were not interestingly dysfunctional.  You always knew what everyone was going to do.  I lost interest long before the book ended.

Oh, and?  I was also displeased with how the *spoiler* circus exploded.  It was like the author just got sick of the Binewski family and was trying to figure out what she could do to get rid of everyone so that she could get back to Olympia in the present in order to end that storyline unsatisfactorily too, so she was like, Well, hey, I’ll just blow everyone up.

Hmph.

I am much happier when I contemplate the Brownings.  Do you know about the Brownings?  If not, it is definitely worth your while to go and look up the Brownings and learn a little bit about them.  And go ahead and read The Barretts of Wimpole Street.  And then go ahead and read their letters to each other.  The ones from 1845-1846 are all the letters there ever were, because after they were married, says their son, they were never separated.

A sad (but nice) story: On Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s last day (of life, I mean), she was sickly and he was fretting, and when he offered to bathe her feet to soothe her she said, “Well, you are determined to make an exaggerated case of it!” and she died in his arms and the last thing she said was that when he asked her how she felt, she said, “Beautiful.”

(That story makes me teary-eyed.)

The Brownings are lovely.  I always want to give them a hug.  They’re so brave and humble and affectionate and dear, and they always send letters to tell each other how much they love them.  When I read their letters I feel like that episode of Buffy where she’s all upset about Xander and Anya having a fight and she’s all, “THEY HAVE A MIRACULOUS LOVE!”

That’s me.  About the Brownings.  Darling Brownings!

…I’m not bragging or anything.  I’m just mentioning.  Robert Browning?  He was born on my birthday.  So unless you were born on 9 December or 23 April, and actually even if you were born on 9 December or 23 April, I still pretty much win at Best Birthday.  Because Robert Browning was a gifted writer and also a completely lovely person.

A Charmed Life: Growing up in Macbeth’s Castle, Liza Campbell

Recommended by: A Garden Carried in the Pocket, who always seems to read such interesting books, that lucky duck.

I am very, very fond of dysfunctional family memoirs.  Or crazy people memoirs are also fine too.  Both types of memoirs make me feel grateful for my own lovely family, which is not at all dysfunctional and handles crazy extremely well.  So I enjoyed this, and it was also an interesting insight into the ways of the toffs.  (Cause I’m all lower-middle-class American South girl.)  When I started reading it, I thought that Liza Campbell didn’t compare well to people like, I don’t know, Catherine Gildiner who wrote Too Close to the Falls – but as I went on, her writing style grew on me.

Her father was the twenty-fifth Thane of Cawdor, and he was much with The Crazy.  He became convinced his mother-in-law was a witch, a real witch, and he put scissors all over the place in Cawdor Castle as counter-hexes, to protect himself.  (This is a minor incident in the book – it was just one of those moments of Crazy that made me pause and say a little thank-you prayer to the Lord for my mental health.)  Oh, and I also learned that apparently in France the second twin out is considered to be the older twin.  Because of being conceived first is the notion.  And all about the proper etiquette if you shoot someone when you’re out hunting.  (I won’t make a Dick Cheney joke about that.)

Like most of these memoirs about The Crazy, this was interesting and sometimes funny and also really, really sad and a little creepy.  I obligingly passed it on to my mother, and I’m sure my little sister – also a fan of books about Crazy – will be in line to read it too, since I kept distracting her from Sunshine yesterday night by reading her bits of A Charmed Life.