Book Review: The Lacuna (Kingsolver)

October 17, 2010

Hello, my erudite darlings! I’m sorry for the lack of actual reviews of late– my supply of ARCs has more or less evaporated. I do have one that will be up as soon as I get around to finishing it. Also (possibly) in the works is my honest opinion of Twilight: The Graphic Novel, and reviews of the other Cybils graphic novel nominees. Today, though, I have a review for you of The Lacuna, by Barbara Kingsolver, which isn’t new, but did recently blow me away.

This book covers roughly twenty years in the life of Harrison William Shepherd, first his experiences in Mexico as a boy and with Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, and Leon Trotsky as employers, then his life in America during World War II and the Second Red Scare. Kingsolver has said that the foremost question she wanted to examine in writing this book was, why is the relationship between art and politics such an uneasy one in the US? A mere two decades sampled from our history can’t explain this question fully, but in looking at the period she did, Kingsolver revealed much, and strengthened her thesis by indirectly comparing America’s artisto-political climate to Mexico’s, where art and politics mold together in an almost celebratory way. The most standout character in the book, besides Shepherd himself, was Frida– by the end, you cannot think of her as a historical figure; she is incontrovertibly a real person.

The overarching story of this book is how little we actually know about people like Frida (and Harrison) from the way history paints them; it is the parts of the record that are missing (called “lacunas” by historians) that, when filled, reveal the truth. This book, then, a collection of Harrison’s journals, letters, and relevant news clippings from the time, is the massive piece which completes the puzzle of a life misrepresented. It explores the politics of fear, the inconstancy of public opinion, and the subjectivity of truth against the backdrop of American anti-communism, in a time when to dissent was to offer oneself up to a political and cultural witch hunt. All of this Kingsolver handles with deftness and sensitivity, telling a story that, while inescapably relevant to our current national climate, could only be told in the setting she told it in: it is a story of art, communism, family, and history. It is the story of a man isolated from the world by his upbringing and sexuality who nonetheless finds that he must live in it, and that he can make his mark upon it. It is the story of a life.

In a time when America is dealing with a surge of anger and fear, when “if you’re not with us, you’re against us” is still a touted view, Kingsolver’s novel is not only set in the past. It is a call for conscience and against censorship and intolerance. It highlights the dangers of fear politics, and poses the question, How many voices have been silenced?


Book Review: The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest (Larsson)

May 31, 2010

I have a particular habit which many people find, well, offputting. I carry a small but distinctly solid hammer in my purse, which comes everywhere with me. I could go through my whole rationale to prove that that doesn’t make me a crazy person– after all, who wants to mug the psycho bitch with the hand tools? –but really, all that is relevant here is that the practice was inspired by a heroine who is very uniquely herself and like no other character I have ever had the pleasure of reading: Lisbeth Salander.

I have been waiting to write this post for a long time.

I am by no means alone in praising the Millenium Trilogy; indeed, the late Steig Larsson has gained international acclaim for his series, which is completed by the newly released The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest. His story is famous: shortly before his unexpected death at the age of 50 due to a massive heart attack, Larsson turned in three complete manuscripts which he never saw published. Unfortunately for the world, he didn’t live to finish the other books in the series, of which there were to be an eventual ten. He left behind three quarters of a completed fourth volume, and synopses of fifth and sixth books may also exist. As of this May, the Millenium Trilogy has sold a total of some 27 million copies worldwide.

I could go on about how Larsson’s work highlights and condemns a broad spectrum of anti-feminist thought (in its original Swedish release, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo was titled Män som hatar kvinnor, or Men Who Hate Women). I could talk about how great it is to see a guy writing about a strong female character who isn’t grossly oversexualized and doesn’t turn into a ninny at the crucial moment and need saving. It’d be true; I do admire Larsson for that. But what I really want to gush about is Lisbeth Salander. Salander Salander Salander. When asked by a friend how I liked The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, my only complaint was that it didn’t have enough Salander; that one focused mainly on Mikael Blomkvist. This unfortunate condition was remedied in the second volume, The Girl Who Played With Fire. Don’t get me wrong– I Read the rest of this entry »

Book Review: Ash (Lo)

March 6, 2010

From a distance, I thought she was a puff of ash. Clever.

I try to judge books by their characters and story rather than blunt subject matter, but when I heard that someone had written a lesbian retelling of Cinderella, I couldn’t help my gut reaction: Yes! You go, Malinda Lo!

As a brief “public service announcement” (as Lo herself calls it on her blog): yes, I myself am gay, and I’ve been openly so since the day I figured it out. I am also a lover of fairy-tales and their retellings, especially those by Robin McKinley and Donna Jo Napoli, Shannon Hale, Gale Carson Levine, and others like them. Their romances, I might note, are straight. I like to read about love between men and women, but there’s a certain thrill to picking up a romance that speaks to me in a highly personal way. Part of what appeals to us as readers in fairy-tales is the understanding that yes, you too can have a happy ending. Love really can conquer all. Ash sends a much-needed message to young adults and all of its readers, I feel: Happy endings aren’t reserved for those who want “traditional” love. Love conquers all no matter what form it takes, and love isn’t wrong.

At the same time, though, this isn’t a book where the author beats you over the head with “OMG guys look at me I’m writing about lesbians!” Lo has mentioned in the teaser video for Ash that the fact that Ash falls in love with a woman is secondary to fact that she falls in love,  and says elsewhere on her website that originally, she did fall in love with the prince. It was only upon rereading her own manuscript that Lo realized, at the prompting of a friend, that it wonted for romance with Kaisa.

Okay, so /rant. On to judging the book by its characters and story.

Since this is a retelling of Cinderella, some elements are to be expected: the dead mother and cruel stepmother, the father that is often absent and soon dies as well. Aisling, called Ash, (which I felt was a delightful transformation of the impetus for “cinder” names) has two stepsisters, the younger of whom is traditionally kinder to her, and she is the sole hardworking servant of the household.

In this story, however, there are a few key differences beyond the LGBT twist. Instead of a fairy godmother, Ash has Sidhean, a mysterious fae man who warns her of the danger of his realm even as he presents a promise to steal her away. Ash, still grieving for her mother and downtrodden by her life as a slave, wishes to be stolen away by the faeries, tales of whom she has always loved. This changes when she meets Kaisa, the King’s Huntress.

Without revealing too much about the book, it’s a wonderful retelling which contains elements of both the Perrault and Grimm’s versions, but is still entirely original. I believe that Ash’s original desire to be stolen away by the fairies is an allegory for something which real teens feel far too often: suicidal thoughts, and that this makes her finding Kaisa as a reason to live again that much more powerful. Neither of the young women is masculine or “butch,” and though Kaisa is the picture of a strong, confident young woman, Ash herself is somewhat submissive. I credited this to a quiet nature and to her last several years spent being trod on. All the same, even as Kaisa rescues Ash from her misery, in the very end the young heroine must save herself from Sidhean’s entanglement.

The ending itself was somewhat confusing, but for the sake of the rest of the story I’m willing to go along with it on the premise that Ash herself isn’t quite sure what happened. Perhaps someday (yeah, right) I’ll have a chance to speak to Malinda Lo and see how she defends it. Four stars.