Saturday, February 28, 2015

Review: Natchez Burning

Full disclosure: I read only 571 of the 800 pages of Natchez Burning, and that was because the central story regarding long-unsolved civil rights crimes in Mississippi and the men who perpetrated them was really, really exciting.

However, I stopped reading long after I should have. I found Greg Iles' depiction of women in this novel sexist. Men were characters with purpose, whose actions defined them and whose purpose was clear. Not so for women.

In Natchez Burning, women are caricatures who smell like sex and whose actions are not honest or honorable. Women are described regularly with ample adjectives: beautiful, ambitious, desirable, wild, sexual or ruthless. Their actions need adjectives and adverbs, and they're reduced to hormones and a uterus.

At first, I thought it was the failure of the characters. I thought maybe that is just how Penn Cage saw them. Maybe Penn Cage was the sexist. Alas, I should have taken a clue when Albert needed to turn on a fan to get a woman's sex smell out of a room early in the book. Following that, Tom and Page both thought Viola smelled like sex, then Katie Royal was "never the same" after her wild encounters with Pookie. Then Mrs. Doctor Cage was the stand-by-your-man wife of 52 years with literal blind trust in her husband and seen only in relation to them. Then Pithy was the town gossip. The myriad of nurses were stalwart, but rather forgettable.

Then there was Caitlin, the beautiful, ambitious, ruthless and cruel newspaper publisher whose only thought was a story that could win her a second Pulitzer Prize. However, her sexuality was never far away: one of the first conversations between Penn and Caitlin involve Penn asking how late her period was, to distract her from wheedling information out of him. Thus I understood what I suspected would become a major plot complication.

Caitlin's male counterpart, Henry, is ambitious and working in near-obscurity to crack wide open a story steeped in civil rights struggles and murder. Henry's physical description is part of the story, but the narrative doesn't describe his "flashing green eyes," not once. Caitlin, however, has flashing green eyes — and, when she dashes out to a story, the narration notes that she doesn't have time to fix her hair or put on makeup. Her ambition, her wealth, her drive, her physical presence and feminine elements are described in great detail. Henry, however, simply does his job without mention of his need to shower, shave or primp.

I slowed down a little when Caitlin described how her life may change with the responsibilities of home and hearth. She reviewed the whole career-home dichotomy, which may have been fair. However, Penn the single father rarely worried about how his activities would affect his pre-teen daughter, Annie. Aside from a couple of inconveniences when his family or fiancĂ©e stepped in to help him with — well, anything, Annie was not a major concern.

Caitlin was ruthless almost to the point of twirling a virtual mustache. She shows more interested in whether Henry will be her employee to give her the story he's developed over the years than in his physical safety or health. Caitlin pumps her arms in glee that she has a story while Henry is in eminent danger. She has lived and worked in close proximity to the people and place of the news but shows interest only when it's big enough for her and shows interest in Henry only for what he can give her. Penn has built a relationship, but Caitlin has bought a story.

What made me close this book? The stupidest conversation I ever read between two ambitious, successful women.

Penn and Caitlin met Jordan and John for a major plot complication. The men marched off to talk business, and the women presumably did the same — only not. Penn and John mentioned the women only peripherally, and that was to confirm the wall between their professional and private roles. Jordan and Caitlin, however, began with griping about their men, which then devolved into "don't wait to make marriage and babies because life is too short." Really? Two women with three Pulitzer Prizes between them, one of whom had been in a war zone, who are knee-deep in solving a historic civil rights mystery (and possibly earning another Pulitzer each) aren't talking about the case, but over-sharing about their family lives.

I had to put it down.

I am very disappointed. I was sucked into an exciting story that had scope, pathos, historic resonance and relevance. What I got was a man who created female caricatures.

Let me know what you thought of the characters and the depiction of the sexes in Natchez Burning. I would love to be proven wrong, or maybe even over-sensitive. I'm a huge fan of Iles and I don't want to be disappointed.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Poetry Wednesday: Reincarnation


Who would believe in reincarnation

if she thought she would return as

an oyster? Eagles and wolves

are popular. Even domesticated cats

have their appeal. It’s not terribly distressing

to imagine being Missy, nibbling

kibble and lounging on the windowsill.

But I doubt the toothsome oyster has ever

been the totem of any shaman

fanning the Motherpeace Tarot

or smudging with sage.

Yet perhaps we could do worse

than aspire to be a plump bivalve. Humbly,

the oyster persists in filtering

seawater and fashioning the daily

irritations into lustre.

Dash a dot of Tabasco, pair it

with a dry Martini, not only

will this tender button inspire

an erotic fire in tuxedoed men

and women whose shoulders gleam

in candlelight, this hermit praying

in its rocky cave, this anchorite of iron,

calcium, and protein, is practically

a molluskan saint. Revered and sacrificed,

body and salty liquor of the soul,

the oyster is devoured, surrendering

all—again and again—for love.

by Ellen Bass
Listen to the poet read "Reincarnation"
courtesy of The New Yorker

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Review: Gone, Girl

I was warned.

Strangers and friends alike, people who share my taste in books and those who have no idea what I read, sent up red flags.

"You will be furious by the ending of Gone, Girl," they said, to a one.

Yet, I did not listen. Hey, I survived My Sister's Keeper and Bridge to Terabithia (and so did the "throw across the room" books, but only because they were library books). I mean, how bad could Gone, Girl be?

Worse than you'd imagine.

I will try to analyze my disappointment without spoilers, but I may give away more of the plot than you wish to know. If you intend to read this book, proceed with caution. (I may discuss a few other airborne books, so be forewarned.)

Let's start with the basics: Amy disappears under suspicious circumstances. The police see Nick as the most logical suspect. Both Nick and law enforcement uncover information and evidence that points to him. He looks guilty — but is he?

The story is told in two voices. Amy's story begins as journal entries dating back seven years, when she met her now-husband, while Nick remains in the present. Both voices sound authentic, and Gillian Flynn's control of these two characters is tight and flawless. She knows when to cut between scenes, when to end a chapter, precisely how and when to ignite the bombshell. Technically, the book is taught, the perfect whodunit.

The problem lies in the final pages. I have willingly traveled with these two strangers-turned-friends through hundreds of pages of their lives, for years of their experiences together and apart. I have watched both Nick and Amy evolve from what they were to what they became with each other. I have seen how their perceptions of each other evolve, as does how they view themselves, or how they are themselves. Amy emerges slowly, carefully orchestrated, and gels to a glistening sheen.

Nick, on the other hand...

It is with Nick that Flynn failed this reader. His emergence, his evolution, his becoming make sense until the very, very end. As the final scenes close, I wanted to scream and throw the book across the room. Had it not been 1 a.m., I would have expressed my rage and disappointment.

In the end, Nick was nothing like the man of his resolve. The circumstances of his life can conveniently explain it away, but like an untimely demise or deathbed confession, there was no a-ha. There was no resolution, no logical explanation by the author. It just happened, at the end, with finality but no satisfaction for the reader.

Had there been more preamble, had Nick's character toed the line differently, the logic of his final situation would make sense. Even if I didn't like it, I could accept it. Unfortunately, I cannot accept the Nick at the End. It felt like a cop-out, like Flynn had written a good ending for one or two of the characters and she just didn't have it in her to give Nick what he had been himself building all along.

For years, I was angry at Jodi Picoult for the ending of My Sister's Keeper. I saw it as a non-resolution that took the author and her characters off the hook. When a decision was made by someone other than the character who has been set up to do so for hundreds of pages of narrative and plot complications, I felt cheated.

I can't understand, to this day, the "beloved" moniker awarded Bridge to Terabithia. Katherine Paterson wrote it for her young son, whose young friend died in a random accident — so, if she wanted to reinforce that idea, her book succeeded. It was a terrible, nonsensical ending that added nothing to the story or the characters. I felt cheated.

The ending of Gone, Girl makes me feel as though both the readers and Nick were cheated from an ending we all deserved. I don't trust Flynn and I won't recommend this book to another reader.