Review 1413: The People in the Trees

Best of Ten!
When everyone was reading The People in the Trees a few years ago, I didn’t think it sounded like something I’d be interested in. Then I finally read Yanagihara’s fabulous A Little Life. That made me pick up this book when I saw it again.

The novel begins with documents written by Ronald Kubodera, a coworker and acolyte of Dr. Norton Perina, a renowned scientist who won the Nobel Prize and now has been imprisoned for child molesting. Kubodera convinces Perina to write his memoir, telling his side of the story.

Just out of medical school, Perina is wondering what to do with himself. He has no intention of becoming a medical doctor, and his graduate school lab work he finds boring. He has managed to offend his laboratory boss, so he is surprised when the man recommends him for a position accompanying Paul Tallent, an anthropologist, to a remote Micronesian island.

Perina’s prize-winning work is based on what he observes on that island. Tallent takes him to the U’Ivu U’ivu Islands, an archipelago of three islands. One of them, Ivu’ ivu, is forbidden, but there are rumors of a strange animal-like people on that island. Tallent hopes to discover an unknown tribe.

The first people they discover are in a state of extreme senility, some almost totally dehumanized. When they find the village, these other people are much like other U’Ivu islanders, only there are no older people in the village.

Perina’s discovery is to figure out that the people of Ivu’ ivu can live almost eternally after eating the meat of the opa’ ivu’ eke turtle, found only on Ivu’ ivu. The downside is that something in the meat also causes increased senility. The older islanders remain physically fit but eventually lose speech and all semblance of humanity.

Perina breaks a taboo to capture an opa’ ivu’ eke turtle and smuggle it out of the country for study. He also takes with him some of the elders, whom he calls dreamers.

This novel is about the abuse of power and what it can lead to. Perina is not a sympathetic character, although he states justifications for his own actions. His view is that any scientist would have taken the turtle even though his action results in the death of a guide whom he likes. Removing the dreamers from their familiar surroundings to a lab increases their decreptitude, but Perina seems to feel no remorse or even responsibility. He is more concerned with the inevitable destruction of the lifestyle on the islands once he publishes his paper.

This is a fascinating character study of a man so driven by ambition and his own needs that he doesn’t even notice the results of his actions. Even the structure of the novel speaks to this theme of power, for Kubodera’s footnotes abound, and he cuts out an important passage from the original manuscript, included at the end of the book. Kubodera’s comment is that it shouldn’t matter. He himself is such a hero worshipper that he’s ready to excuse Perina anything. Perina attempts to tell the truth about his life, but he is so self-deluded that he becomes an untrustworthy narrator.

Yanogihara has blown me away with another terrific novel.

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Review 1402: Literary Wives! Happenstance

Today is another review for the Literary Wives blogging club, in which we discuss the depiction of wives in fiction. If you have read the book, please participate by leaving comments on any of our blogs. Be sure to read the reviews and comments of the other wives!

Eva of Paperback Princess
Lynn of Smoke and Mirrors
Naomi of Consumed By Ink

* * *

Happenstance is really two novels, back to back, upside down from each other, about a marriage. Depending upon which way you pick up the book, you get either the husband’s or wife’s point of view first. I just happened to read the husband’s story first.

Jack Bowman is a historian who lives a life of the expected. Every Friday he has lunch with his childhood friend Bernie at the same restaurant, where they discuss this week’s philosophical question. He works at the same institute where he was hired straight out of college more than twenty years ago. He still loves his wife, Brenda, and has always been faithful. He is skeptical of, in 1978, new political and social movements. He has been working on the same book for three years, sort of. He attends periodic parties with neighbors he dislikes.

The events of one week make him begin evaluating his life. First, he finds out that an old flame may be publishing a book on the same topic as the one he has been dilatorily writing. Second, his wife is leaving town for five days to attend a crafts conference. Finally, his friend Bernie arrives on his doorstep after separating from his wife.

Jack wonders if he wants to finish his book. He isn’t really interested in the topic, which was suggested by his boss. Further, he wonders whether his work in his comfortable, stress-free environment serves any purpose.

For her part, Brenda began making quilts several years ago and has begun attracting attention because of them. She tends to be placid and self-deprecating, but before she took up quilting she sometimes found herself angry about her life.

At the conference, she finds friendly people who are interested in conversations about things that interest her. Moreover, because of an embarrassing incident, she befriends a metallurgist attending another conference at the same hotel. Soon, she can tell she may have to decide whether to have an affair.

I couldn’t decide what my reaction was to this book. On the one hand, characters are examining their lives through the lens of mundane events. On the other hand, I feel that the portrait of the marriage was more realistic than usual because of this, showing a couple doing ordinary things. I thought that approach was braver than a depiction of horrid secrets coming out. On the other hand, especially the conversations seemed ordinary and not very interesting. As a side note, I am interested whether reading the book the other way around would make any difference.

What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?

What stands out for me about this marriage is that Brenda, open and ready for change, ultimately decides to stick with her old life. Jack, on the other hand, previously so resistant to change, seems to decide that some changes might be good.

Literary Wives logoAs to her role as a wife, Brenda entered marriage with naïvete and not much thought at a time when it was expected. Twenty years later, she isn’t sure she made the right decision, or rather, she thinks maybe she missed something. Her quilt making, however, has given her a sense of purpose and creativity. She doesn’t seem to resent that she must be a wife, mother, and housewife before being a creative person, even though that topic is raised in one of her conference sessions. Still, she is tempted toward change.

It’s interesting to me that in this time of a growing awareness of feminism (this book was published in 1980), Brenda doesn’t seem to be very aware of it or interested in the ideas the movement has spawned.

I am glad, although Jack doesn’t necessarily understand Brenda, that the book didn’t follow the cliché of the husband being unsupportive of his wife’s activities.

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Review 1382: The Sport of Kings

To paraphrase Sophia Brownrigg, a reviewer from The Guardian, The Sport of Kings is about horse racing like Moby Dick is about whales. It is ambitious—attempting to tell the history of Kentucky through that of two families—one white, wealthy, elitist, and bigotted, the other black, poor, and beleagered. It is sometimes magnificent in its prose and sometimes overblown. It is Southern Gothic, focussing on the ramifications of slavery and bigotry.

Henry Forge is the only son of a proud Kentucky family. As a youngster, he was brutalized by his father and lectured about his place in history. We have some sympathy with him until, in his teens, he commits an unforgivable act.

He rebels against his father by turning the family corn plantation into a horse farm, but the nut doesn’t fall far from the tree. When his wife leaves him, his daughter is nine. He takes his daughter out of school and teaches her himself, all his lessons revolving around horses and breeding and including much out-of-date or just plain incorrect information. He is as elitist as his father—and worse.

Henrietta grows up with a talent for working with horses and a keen, cold intelligence. She also likes to pick up men for sex. Then she meets Allmon Shaughnessy, the new African-American groom, fresh from a prison program for working with horses.

Up to that point, the novel seems mostly a multigenerational saga, occasionally discoursing on geology, genetics, or history in the interludes. But after that it becomes wildly overblown at times, reminding me of the characteristics of Moby Dick that I disliked.

Like one other reader on Goodreads, every time I picked up this novel I wanted it to end. It is about deeply unpleasant characters; the least at fault—Allmon—whines his way through the novel. Its long asides are often irritating. It is sometimes beautiful and very dark, but it is often annoying.

Last year I read an essay—I can’t remember who wrote it—complaining about what I call “books only men like,” usually the ones that win awards. (I read this one for my James Tait Black prize project.) This essay commented that because a certain type of book gets attention and wins awards, now some women are beginning to write like men, using All the Birds, Singing as an example. I did not agree with the writer’s example but couldn’t help thinking of this essay while I read this novel.

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Review 1380: Literary Wives! Ties

Today is another review for the Literary Wives blogging club, in which we discuss the depiction of wives in fiction. If you have read the book, please participate by leaving comments on any of our blogs. Be sure to read the reviews and comments of the other wives!

We are sorry that Emily of The Bookshelf of Emily J. has left our group because of her many commitments. We’re going to miss her!

Eva of Paperback Princess
Lynn of Smoke and Mirrors
Naomi of Consumed By Ink

* * *

Ties is a very short novel divided into three parts. It is about a marriage, but moreso, it is about how a period of infidelity in that marriage affects everyone in this small family. Part I consists of letters written by the wife, Vanda, after her husband leaves her. Part II is narrated by the husband 40 years after they reconcile. Part III is from the point of view of their two children.

Initially, I was sympathetic to Vanda. After all, her husband leaves her with almost no warning and then neglects her and her children for several years, refusing to discuss their situation and too busy being happy with his girlfriend. His explanations for the affair are laden with sophism. Where did this idea come from, repeated twice, that it’s bad to resist impulses? It’s the 70’s, but come on. However, Vanda’s tone in the letters is too insistent, too strident.

An old man, Aldo is forced to revisit this period in their lives after a break-in. Cleaning up, he finds Vanda’s letters and reads them again. He sees his old affair with Lidia as a bid for freedom that was defeated out of guilt. After he and his wife reunited, she used his unhappiness to beat him and make him submissive. Worse, from the children’s point of view, she removed his role of father from the family.

This book was obviously written by a man.

Throughout the book are themes of boxes or being boxed in versus freedom and themes of cheating or being cheated.

What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?

We understand that Vanda and Aldo were happy and content for some years, although for a few years before the breakup, they were less so. But in this book we only see Vanda as a shrew. Of course, there is reason for her to be unhappy when her husband leaves her and the children with nothing and then avoids them for years. Still, she carries her reactions to an extreme, especially after they reunite.

For his part, Aldo seems to see her and their children as a trap. Interesting, how some men seem to forget they actually participated in having children. Once he has left them, he prefers to think only of Lidia. Later in life, he’s been downtrodden for so long, yet he sees Lidia once a year and secretly keeps photos of her in a box.

Jhumpa Lahiri, in her introduction, says the novel is about creating and destroying. To me, it is just about destroying. Aldo was happy with Lidia but didn’t have the courage to stay with her. At the same time, he destroyed what seemed to be a happy marriage with Vanda in the worst possible way, by deserting his family. When he comes back out of guilt, the two of them create an even worse mess.

 

Review 1374: The Sellout

Really? This book won the Booker Prize? I know my sense of humor is getting to be out of date, and when I read on the blurb that the book was “biting satire,” I just sighed. There’s no subtlety in humor anymore, and this novel is a prime example. Its writing style is broad and hectic, like a really long stand-up comedy routine. I’m guessing you either love it or hate it.

The narrator, a black man whose name is Me, starts out the novel at the Supreme Court, where he is being tried as a slave owner and is getting a lot of hatred because of his race. He proceeds to tell the story of how he got there, spending lots of time getting to the crux of the story.

The beginning of the book, where he satirizes his upbringing as a subject of his father’s childhood development experiments, is over the top but amusing. When he introduces the character of Hominy Jenkins, the last surviving Little Rascal, his all-on employment of racial stereotypes (to make fun of them, of course) was too much for me. I quit about halfway, after he reluctantly made Hominy his slave.

Be warned that this novel makes extensive use of the N word. I’m not sure, but Beatty’s intent may be to desensitize us to it. If so, it didn’t work.

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Review 1371: My Year of Rest and Relaxation

Ottessa Moshfegh is good at creating unappealing characters, and the narrator of My Year of Rest and Relaxation is no exception. From a privileged background, pretty and with no need to work, she inwardly mocks everything, including her only friend, Reva. Depressed by the deaths of her cold parents and by being dumped by her cruel boyfriend, Trevor, she decides that she wants to sleep her way into a new life. So, she loads up with a cocktail of prescription drugs, supplied by her batty, pill-pushing psychiatrist.

This novel can be darkly funny, mostly in a cruel poking at Reva’s social ambitions or other characters’ taste, but also poking fun at the modern art scene. Still, I found it both oddly fascinating and distasteful, despite a more positive ending.

This novel is set in the early 2000’s and works its way resolutely to 9/11.

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Review 1370: Unsheltered

Unusual for Barbara Kingsolver, Unsheltered is a dual time-frame novel, changing centuries every other chapter. The setting is the same, though, the odd town of Vineland, New Jersey.

In the present time, Willa’s family has discovered that the house she inherited in Vineland is no asset. Both she and her husband, Iano, have recently lost their jobs through no fault of their own. Willa’s magazine failed, and so did the college in West Virginia where Iano was tenured. When he finally got hired in an inferior level for a one-year position, the inherited house nearby had seemed like a godsend. But now she has found that it is falling down, with part of the old house not even on a foundation, and too expensive to fix.

To make matters worse, they are the only people in the family who offered to take in Iano’s ornery dying father. Their daughter, Tig, has also unexpectedly returned from a year in Cuba. Finally, their son Zeke’s partner has committed suicide, leaving him in an apartment he can’t afford with a baby son. Willa and Iano offer him a place to stay, but what he wants is to leave his son with them.

In mid-19th century Vineland, Thatcher Greenwood has moved his new bride, Rose, back into the house she grew up in. They are also living with her mother, Aurelia, and young sister, Polly. Thatcher is delighted with his wife but is soon to find that they don’t share the same values. His position as a science teacher pays very little, but Rose and her mother continue to demand elegancies that belong to their former life, before Rose’s father went broke.

Next door, Thatcher meets Mary Treat. Rose knows her as the poor woman who was deserted by her husband, but Thatcher learns that she is a scientist, whose correspondents include Charles Darwin.

Vineland was founded as a sort of utopia by Captain Landis, but Thatcher begins to see the cracks in that utopia. One of them is his employer, who will not allow him to teach anything more than rote memorization and hates most recent scientific theories, particularly Darwin’s.

Both of these main characters are concerned with keeping shelter over their families’ heads, but while Kingsolver links the stories through Willa’s growing interest in Mary Treat, she is also able to draw many parallels between the two times. The present uncertainty in the poor economy of the Eastern Seaboard she compares to the uncertainty in the lives of Vineland’s population, of workers promised much by a man who can repossess their property if they fail. An unmistakable political figure in the present day, nicknamed by Willa The Bullhorn, bears a metaphorical resemblance to Landis, who is essentially a conman. The main characters’ housing insecurity stands for the insecurity of the entire population as a result of climate change and the death of the American dream. Kingsolver has lots to talk about.

I’m not so sure how much I liked the dual narrative. I was far more interested in the present-time story than I was in the older one. Kingsolver seemed to want to write about Mary Treat, but Treat features more as an important secondary character. And I have to say that some of Willa’s discussions with her daughter and her ruminations about those discussions border on the didactic (which we know has been a fault of Kingsolver in some other books).

Still, it is great to have another book out by Kingsolver. She can be hit or miss, but I have very fond memories of some of her books.

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