Victoria Jelinek


The Winter Sea by Susanna Kearsley

indexIn 1708, a fleet of French and Scottish soldiers almost succeeded in landing the exiled Stuart prince in Scotland to reclaim his crown. In the present day, author Carrie McClelland wants to turn this story into her next bestselling novel. Settling into the shadows of an ancient castle in the highlands of Scotland, she creates a heroine named after one of her own Scottish ancestors, and begins to write the tale. Soon after, she finds that the details she’s including in the book are more fact than fiction, and she ponders whether she’s dealing with ancestral memory, making her the only person alive who knows the truth about what happened over 300 years ago.

I was skeptical about reading what looked like a tome of historical fiction, but my doubt was quickly allayed. The concept is great – a writer has characters and their actions, circumstances, and dialogues, coming to her as memories, blurring the lines between fact and fiction. The locale is vividly, but not overly described. The characters – both in the present day and during the 18th century – are compelling. The story is suspenseful (and there’s a twist at the end that I didn’t see coming). Finally, I learned a great deal about the Jacobites, the feuds between Scotland and England, and the alliance between France and Scotland, which is immensely interesting and explains a lot about the social politics between these three (Scotland, England, France) countries today.

 

 

 



Plainsong by Kent Haruf

shoppingA small town community in the ‘heartlands’ of the USA is the setting for Plainsong and its rendering of the quintessentially American experience. Kent Haruf interweaves the stories of a lonely teacher, a pair of boys abandoned by their mother, a pregnant high school girl, and a couple of brittle old bachelor farmers as they undergo radical changes over the course of a year. With lyrical, eloquent prose that is richly nuanced, Haruf presents the steadfast courage of decent, troubled people getting on with their lives.

Weather and landscape set the quiet, observant mood of the narrative, while descriptions of rural existence are poetic invocations to the natural world. Haruf steers clear of sentimentality and melodrama, however. His beautifully imagined characters and the vivid depictions of their experiences, makes each of them seem non-fiction, which can evoke both heart-warming and heart-wrenching feelings (respectively) in the reader. Emotions that resonate long after one finishes the novel. This is a contemplative and compelling story about grief, loss, loneliness, and frustration, as well as kindness, love, benevolence, beauty, and what it means to be a family.



Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

indexThe concept of Frankenstein has invaded popular culture to the extent that even those that have never read the book have a vague sense of what it’s about – “a mad scientist who creates a monster!” This is essentially true, and given the multitudes of adaptations to film and TV, I, too, previously defined it thus. But it’s so much more. Frankenstein is about love, loss, identity, anger, betrayal, beauty, and ugliness. It is also very sad. There was a point when I thought I couldn’t continue reading it, but because it’s so beautifully written and so subtle in its complexity, I continued.

The novel begins with explorer Robert Walton searching for a new passage from Russia to the Pacific Ocean via the Arctic Ocean. After some time at sea, with their boat stuck in ice, the crew and Walton find Victor Frankenstein floating on an ice flow very near to death, and bring him aboard. Walton re tells the tragic story of Victor Frankenstein through a series of letters to his sister in England. Victor was a precocious child who grew up on the shores of Geneva in a wealthy and loving family. He leaves home for university, where he studies physical science and greatly impresses his fellow students and professors by his genius. Spurred on by ambition, Victor uses a combination of chemistry, alchemy, and electricity to create and re animate a dead body. Once the creature comes to life, Victor is overcome by guilt and runs away in fear and disgust. The monster wanders the countryside, repudiated and despised by all who see him. He eventually teaches himself to read and to understand language. One day, he discovers a notebook and letters that were lost by Victor. From these notes, the monster learns of his creation and decides to take revenge on his creator as a salve for the injury and sorrow that he has endured in isolation. His vengeance is horrible. Yet through a conversation with Victor in which the monster relates how his life has been and in which he appeals to him to make him a mate (which Victor refuses), one almost forgives the sorrow that he causes.

As the daughter of philosophers and advocates for women’s rights, Mary Shelley would have been exposed to sociological discussion throughout her life. When she wrote Frankenstein, the French Revolution had just ended and Europe was afraid that its ideas of liberty and equality might spread. Industrialization was just beginning, which would bring an end to the landed class and see a rise of the middle class. Alchemy and superstition had been discredited in favor of hard sciences. Shelley manifests these cultural events through the themes and motifs of Frankenstein: she is concerned with the invasion of technology into modern life; how knowledge and science is used for good or for evil purposes; the overwhelming power of nature, as well as its curative power; and the treatment of the poor or uneducated. At its heart, Shelley asks the reader to consider how we can control the knowledge we have so that it’s for the benefit of all of mankind. How far should advances in science and technology push the individual in terms of personal and spiritual growth? When does man become a slave to his machines? What constitutes a “good” life? Who is responsible for the most vulnerable in society? Provocative questions about the human condition posed almost 200 years ago that remain relevant today.

 



Dark Places by Gillian Flynn

Libby Day was seven when her mother and two sisters were murdered in their home in an attack dubbed by the press as “The Satan Sacrifice of Kinnakee, Kansas.” Libby and her then fifteen-year-old brother, Ben, survived, and it was Libby’s testimony that sent Ben to jail on a life sentence for the monstrous murders.

41x9l+9rpDL._SX302_BO1,204,203,200_As a youngster, Libby received a lot of money from strangers for having survived her ordeal (and for being cute). Twenty-five-years later, she’s broke, and hasn’t done anything with her life except grow angrier and more depressed. Then the Kill Club locates her. They’re a secret society obsessed with notorious murders, and they want to pump Libby for details because they believe Ben was wrongly convicted and want to find proof that will liberate him. In turn, Libby hopes to make a profit off of her tragic history. For a fee, she’ll reconnect with people associated with that night and her family at that time, and report her findings back to the club. When Libby begins this journey, she’s convinced her brother is guilty. But as her search takes her from decrepit Missouri strip clubs, to deserted Oklahoma tourist towns, and back to the site of the fatal killings, the inconceivable truth emerges, and Libby finds herself back where she started – running from a murderer.

The novel is a complex character study and an evocative portrait of people on the fringe of society. Told in sporadic flashback, Libby narrates the present-day chapters in first person, while the flashback chapters are told in third-person, describing the actions and perspectives of several key characters on the days leading up to, and on the day that, the family was murdered. Libby is not a particularly likeable protagonist – she’s bitter, tough, and selfish. Even so, you root for her, and you’re sad about her horrifying childhood. Similarly, Ben isn’t particularly appealing – he’s awkward, shiftless, impressionable, and irrational. Like Libby, you feel immense sympathy for him. Each of the characters in the book are compelling, even if they’re not agreeable, and Flynn expertly weaves their stories together. The narrative is consistently developed, compelling, and absolutely suspenseful throughout (I had to resist reading the last chapters to find out how it ended!). The best aspect of this book, however, is in Flynn’s ability to create a vivid picture or a situation in a phrase or two, giving the reader a believable glimpse into a world we might never see otherwise.

This is an insightful, poignant, and well-written book. Its ability to affect its reader is also impressive. I was troubled for several days after finishing it – I found myself checking on my sleeping child in the night, hugging him more during the day, and double-checking that the front and back doors were locked when I went to bed. Would I read it again? Not for some years. Do I recommend reading it? An emphatic yes!

 

 

 

 



The Book of Dust – La Belle Sauvage

Book of DustMany years ago, I remember working at a film school and talking to a colleague about the wonderful J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. My then-colleague said, “You’ve not read Philip Pullman, then, have you?” I hadn’t. Later that day, I found my way to a bookstore and bought the His Dark Materials trilogy (written by Pullman) and gulped them down. Once read, I realized there was no comparison: His Dark Materials is, in my opinion (as well as my respected colleague’s), the better series. It’s complex and imaginative as it combines magical creatures and alternative worlds in an uncompromising story about religion, authority, and individual freedom. Topical themes in any age, really.

It has been nearly two decades since Philip Pullman completed his renowned trilogy. In its first installment, The Northern Lights (or The Golden Compass, depending on where you’re geographically located in the world), he introduces readers to Lyra Belacqua, a girl from a parallel world, who sets off on an epic mission to rescue a missing friend. In the His Dark Materials trilogy, Pullman depicts a world ruled by an oppressive church, known as the Magisterium, that dictates the rules and mores of society. The worlds created in both His Dark Materials and his latest series, The Book of Dust, are almost like our own world, but just slightly changed. A primary difference is that every human is linked to their own daemon, an animal-shaped manifestation of their soul. (I love this idea!).

In Pullman’s long-awaited follow up, The Book of Dust, and its first volume, La Belle Sauvage, we’re introduced to the prequel (to the original trilogy) set ten years before the first adventure, when Lyra is just an infant in need of protection from the burgeoning powers of the Magisterium. In Lyra’s place as ‘hero’ is Malcolm Polstead. He’s a bright, curious, and capable eleven-year-old who helps his parents at their Oxford pub and also spends a lot of time helping out the nuns at a local priory. In his free time, he’s out on the river in his canoe, which he named “La Belle Sauvage.” One day at the pub, he overhears the news that the local nuns have taken in an infant – Lyra – who is the daughter of two powerful figures — a man named Lord Asriel and a woman named Marisa Coulter. At around the same time, he sees a man arrested by agents of the Magisterium, and later discovers that the man has mysteriously drowned in the river. Going over the area where he first saw the now-deceased man, he finds an item that the man lost — a brass acorn with a hidden message inside. He discovers that the acorn is used as a means to covertly deliver messages to a local scholar who belongs to a secret anti-Magisterium society, and who has access to an alethiometer, which is a truth-divining tool that figured prominently in Pullman’s original trilogy. When a massive flood overtakes Oxford, Malcolm and a teenager, Alice, spirit Lyra away in Malcolm’s canoe in order to avoid a murderous scientist and agents of the Magisterium who are keenly interested in kidnapping the infant.

As this is a prequel to the original trilogy, the Magisterium has not yet established its oppressive control on society, but it’s well on its way to this kind of power. In The Book of Dust-La Belle Sauvage, Pullman illustrates how the Magisterium is infiltrating the very core of society and tightening its grip on every aspect of daily life. Its security force assassinates, assaults, and makes dissidents vanish, while it introduces a youth-oriented group to Malcolm’s school that encourages his classmates to report to the Magisterium the “heretical actions” of their peers, teachers, and parents. Teachers who object are reprimanded or fired. Tension and suspicion escalate. This League and its fascistic movements are similar to the Inquisitorial Squad in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, but the anxiety and fear that Pullman creates with the onset and actions of this League, believably conveys the insidious and hypocritical rot fascist tendencies have on democracy.

In the interest of being judicious, there are a couple of storylines presented and dropped, and the concept of “dust” is really underdeveloped. However, the character of Malcolm holds the narrative together. He’s different from Lyra as the central hero, but he’s vibrant and compelling in his own right. Throughout the course of the novel, he transforms from a quiet, stout child to a hero willing to take radical steps to keep Lyra safe in the name of justice.

Ultimately, Pullman is a master storyteller, and La Belle Sauvage is worth the 17-year wait. Moreover, a tale about battling a rising tide of fascism as authoritarian ‘strongmen’ claim political power and alt-right groups spring up across the world, is timely. This is a tense, thrilling, and magical book that feels like a natural part of the saga that began with His Dark Materials.

 



The Accidental Further Adventures of the 100-Year-Old Man

The Accidental Further Adventures book reviewThe sequel to The One-Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed out the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson is another deft satire about the flaws of modern society. Using Allan and Julius’s latest adventures, with its madcap twists and turns, Jonasson creates a thought-provoking portrait of the current state of the world.

After climbing out the window of his retirement home on his 100th birthday and accidentally entangling himself in an epic adventure involving a suitcase full of cash and a gang of ruffians, the spry Allan and his best-and-only-friend Julius, settle into luxury on Bali. Most people wouldn’t grow bored of sipping cocktails beachside, but Allan and Julius aren’t like most people so their decadent life has become a bore and they’re restless. Julius decides to liven things up with a hot air balloon ride in honor of Allan’s one-hundred-and-first birthday. When the operator jumps out of the balloon to take a bite out of Allan’s birthday cake, Allan and Julius accidentally snap the lever that sets the balloon in motion and they go sailing up into the sky. But they’re not hot balloon experts, of course, and end up having a crash landing at sea before being rescued by a North Korean ship carrying smuggled uranium on board. Soon, Allan and Julius are swept up into an international diplomatic crisis that involves various global players such as Putin, Trump, Merkel, and Kim Jong-un.

I found myself looking forward to going to bed each night in order to continue reading this book in peace. Allan is an incredibly endearing character leading us through twists and turns galore in an intricately plotted book. All the while, Jonasson makes thoughtful and relevant points about power, truth, morality, and the role of perception in current affairs, and not in an ideological or pedantic way, but with nuance, wit, and warmth.

A highly amusing and intelligent book that I absolutely recommend!

 

 



XXI: Book Club

“My idea of good company is the company of clever, well-informed people who have a great deal of conversation.” Jane Austen

Geen-Tea-2I went to ‘Book Club’ this evening. Was loath to go after last night out at two bars with all the drinking, smoking and haphazard talk. Have been ‘twitchy’ and irritable all day as a result. My poor family. Self-recrimination ‘cause I’d had one drink more than my ration. Which was already really hard, given that we were out for hours. Self-recrimination ‘cause I’d been visibly irritated and uncomfortable with the drinking and smoking around me, and that’s not nice for those out to have a good time. Self-recrimination because I should know better than to put myself in the line of temptation. And yet. I didn’t want to get out of bed this morning. I’ve been near-to-tears all day. And, well, ‘Book Club’ is normally a large group of women in what is essentially a ‘book swap,’* drinking a lot of wine and chattering.

So I went late. And, I went only ‘cause it was a bonafide friend hosting it at her house and I wanted to support her. I brought a thermos of green tea and ginger to drink and in order to keep my hands busy and to keep me drinking SOMETHING while, ostensibly, everyone else drank copious amounts of wine. But it wasn’t like it usually is. For one thing, it was just our host, a dear friend of hers, another American who, while I may not agree with her politics, is an avid reader and I trust her judgment on books, as well as our host’s twelve-year-old daughter who is also a reader, and who makes short stop-action films. They were finishing dinner when I arrived, and the daughter had made a peach cobbler. They also weren’t drinking alcohol, just Perrier, and later, tea, so I didn’t feel tempted or preoccupied with others drinking. Best of all? The conversations were dynamic and interesting. We talked about films, and books we’d recently read, and television programs – both in French and English – and we talked about curricula – both French and American – and we talked about travel, and we talked about exercise ‘fads’ sweeping the globe. It was a good evening. Nothing was discussed in too much depth, as I would generally like to do, but, I am, arguably, too serious.  Ultimately, it was an entertaining evening.

What a happy surprise! There’s a moral here I’m sure. Perhaps it’s that I need to only hang out with people who enjoy talking about subjects I also enjoy talking about? Even if that means I am not as social as I generally like to be. There are several people in the valley whose company I find engaging. Perhaps it’s that I can’t be in bars? I suppose it’s like a junkie going to a shooting gallery. Certainly, I can’t be in them for too long. In my previous homes – Portland, New York, Los Angeles, London – I would have discussed the subjects we discussed this eve, such as literature, film, culture, education (and, ideally, some politics!) every time I met up with friends. However, perhaps in those cities it’s more obvious to find more people and situations in which to do so. I mean, my coterie of friends in each of the aforementioned places were filmmakers, writers, painters, musicians, artists, and conversational skill is highly valued as a source of creativity and collaboration. Moreover, these types of people are generally more expressive. Whereas where I live now, people are outdoorsmen. Mountain people. They like to climb, hike, ski, and maintain their fitness in the outdoors, preferably at altitude. That’s their passion and their focus. Not ‘wrong,’ just not me. While I appreciate the mountains, I am claustrophobic in them, preferring the sea always (“Homme libre, toujours tu chériras la mer”). As a result of both the environment and the community’s subsequent interests in general, I’m often self-conscious, frustrated, and isolated here.

More so now that I’m trying to substantially reduce my drinking, smoking, and drug-taking after 33 years of ‘caning’ it. Additionally, the social life I’ve primarily known here is centered on boozy lunches, afternoons, and dinners…at restaurants and bars…with those that flock to and spend a lot of time in them. However, for whatever reason, tonight I made the happy discovery that while the people and opportunities like this evening might be few-and-far between, there ARE, indeed, situations like tonight. I’ve experienced them here before. Evenings in which I will not spend the entire time ‘clock watching,’ leaning on, or ‘clucking’ for my ‘crutches,’ and can, instead, enjoy what I perceive to be good company. Is this a new direction? It could be. It should be. Is it evidence of a whole new me? Perhaps not. But, perhaps, it is a peek at what the future could be like here, for the remaining years I am here, and that’s a relief from the bleak perspective I’ve been viscerally feeling for the last couple of weeks.

*We don’t read the same book and then talk about it like a traditional “Book Club” does. It’s for Anglophone women to have a supply of reading material without having to buy books, which is a great idea in theory.



December 19, 2018 VII – Baby It Does Seem Cold Outside

Baby Its Cold Outside cover

“Leaving sex to the feminists is like letting your dog vacation at the taxidermist.” Camille Paglia

Something I always stress with my students when we begin studying a book in class is the context in which it was created. The context (time period, locale, gender and socio economic status of the writer, historical and cultural events during the period in which it’s written) informs why and how the text is written. It is the seeming inability or unwillingness for many to consider the context in which songs, films, theater, photography, painting, art in general, is created, that gives me the impetus to write today. Specifically, I address the once-again attempt to ‘ban’ the song “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” which is frequently played during the holidays.

In 1944, Frank Loesser wrote “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” in order to perform it with his wife at their housewarming party as they said ‘goodnight’ to their guests. It was written by Loesser as a playful call-and-response duet in order to amuse its listeners. A few years later, the song was used for the musical “Neptune’s Daughter,” in which the male and female parts are identified as “The Wolf” and “the Mouse,” respectively. In the musical, the Wolf and the Mouse have been out on a date and after having a nightcap at the Wolf’s house, the Mouse is making her excuses to go home while he’s trying to persuade her to stay. In this back-and-forth between them, “I really can’t stay…” the Mouse sings, “But, baby, it’s cold outside…” those wishing to ban the song argue that he’s trying to ply the female with alcohol against her wishes and then take advantage of her – certainly many of we women have experienced this attempt and it’s what is, essentially, “date rape” the reasoning goes. Is she succumbing to his unflagging persistence against her wishes? Or, does she really want to stay, but is playing hard to get?

I believe she does want to stay but is playing coy because “good girls” in the 1940’s didn’t have sexual desires outside of marriage (or, arguably, within marriage, but that’s another post). At the time in which the song was created, women – or the Mouse in this case – understood that there were distinctly “acceptable” behaviors for women that were in direct contrast with what was deemed “acceptable” behavior for a man. It was beyond the confines of social “acceptability” for a woman to succumb to her sexual desires and stay the night with a man she had just been on a date with. Giving in to one’s desires could invariably prevent a “good girl” from having a “good marriage” later, which was at the time the raison d’etre for women. Realizing the boundaries of social expectations, the Wolf, through his repeated refrain, is offering her the excuses she needs in order to stay the night without any guilt. Moreover, at the time in which the song was written, “What’s in this drink?” was a stock joke because claiming to drink too much could ostensibly be used as an excuse for bowing to one’s ‘hidden’ wishes – behaving as one wouldn’t normally according to the social expectations at the time. Additionally, if one listens to the song, there are no predatory elements in the tone and style of the music. The female singer is not anxious or afraid – she’s playful, sexy, and desires the male. The song is, indeed, suggestive of light, flirtatious banter, just as the author Loesser intended when he wrote it to sing with his wife after their party.

I include the link (below) to a cover of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” performed by Lady Gaga and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. In this version, the roles have been reversed – Lady Gaga is the “Wolf” and Gordon-Levitt is the “Mouse.” I think it’s a wonderful rendition that captures the essential spirit of the original song.