Friday, March 16, 2007

James Tiptree Jr: the Secret Life of Alice B. Sheldon* Julie Phillips

As a little girl I was addicted to historical fiction. I loved to imagine myself as the honorable knight, the fearless pirate, the courageous explorer. It wasn’t until I was quite a bit older that I understood I could never have been any of those things. As a woman I would have been miserable in nearly any time before our own. Even in my dreams, is there any historical era I can imagine living in as a woman? Maybe one of those early matriarchal societies. Maybe Elizabethan England, but only if I could somehow arrange to be Elizabeth. Or I could do like Mata Hari and dress as a man….

Julie Phillips’ latest book, James Tiptree Jr.: the Secret Life of Alice B. Sheldon, tells the story of an intelligent, beautiful, and slightly unhinged woman who ended up writing some of the most inventive science fiction stories ever…. as a man.

Phillips’ compelling biography follows the long, meandering life of Alice B. Sheldon, who wrote early groundbreaking science fiction stories in the 1970’s under the pseudonym James Tiptree Jr. Phillips tells how Sheldon was waltzed around Africa and India by her explorer parents at the age of six. She then had a briefly successful career as a painter, before joining the military during World War II in one of the few female brigades. Sheldon worked for the CIA, married an older operative, quit to run a chicken farm, earned a PhD in Psychology, and finally began writing Science Fiction as James Tiptree Jr.- a name she stole from a jam jar. Among other things, the book is remarkable for its exploration of America’s changing attitudes towards women.

Reading this book it struck me as patently obvious that Alice Sheldon was transgendered. As Tiptree she wrote inventive science fiction stories where gender was all mixed up- women preferred aliens to human sexual partners, men fell in love with inanimate objects, and the sex itself is often frank and threatening. As herself, in a drunken scribble on the margin of a youthful sketchbook she wrote: “…I want to ram myself into a crazy soft woman and come, come, spend, come, make her pregnant Jesus to be a man to come in coming flesh I love women I will never be happy…”

Good God this is sad stuff. And it raises some thorny issues about gender and sexuality and art. Would coming of age in a time when it was relatively easier to talk about issues of gender and sexuality have allowed Alice to be more comfortable with who she was? Maybe. Would she ever have written the incredible stories she eventually did, had she not had to struggle so mightily within herself? Who knows?

Unfortunately, Phillips doesn’t really delve into these issues. After that heartbreaking quote above, Phillips simply moves on with Sheldon’s history. That’s not to say that this biography is a boring chronology- it’s anything but. The stuff of Sheldon’s life is compelling enough to rival with the plots of the best novels. And Phillips does a wonderful job of letting Sheldon shine through and speak for herself. Perhaps it is better to let the reader wade into the sea of questions themselves. Perhaps it is not the biographer’s job to wonder what might have been. Still, she must have wondered. I would rather not have been left alone with my questions.

Stealing Buddha’s Dinner* Bich Minh Nguyen

I thought my name singled me out. But try growing up with a name like ‘Bich’ in Grand Rapids Michigan in the ‘80’s. The new memoir, Stealing Buddha’s Dinner, chronicles this and other difficulties faced by Vietnamese American author Bich Minh Nguyen. Nguyen has a light, charming voice- at once funny and sad. She obviously has a great appreciation for the inherent absurdity of growing up in the 1980’s.

Nguyen’s family emigrated from Vietnam in 1975, settling in Michigan when she was only 8 months old. Her story is filled with the classic immigrant’s paradox: preserve your own cultural heritage, or assimilate at all costs. Salad bowl, or melting pot?

For children, of course, the pressure to fit in is that much stronger. What little kid doesn’t know the shame of pulling out a bologna sandwich when all your friends are eating PB&J’s? Indeed, for Nguyen, this pressure to conform manifested itself most strongly in the arena of food. Nguyen longed to be eating the Twinkies and Spaghetti-O’s of her peers. She kept her grandmother’s pho and bahn mi a secret. She begged her parents to buy Chef Boyardee and Pringles to stock the cupboard. A trip to Ponderosa Steakhouse was something to be celebrated.

In one heartbreaking scene, Nguyen relates the moment when she discovered the concept of homemade when her neighbor gives her half of a cookie her mother had baked: “I had thought all American food came from a package and some mystical factory process. The idea that a person could create such a thing at home was a revelation. And then, a desire.” Meanwhile her grandmother’s laboriously created dishes were brushed aside.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Thirteen Moons * Charles Frazier

Charles Frazier’s new book, Thirteen Moons, revisits the bracing wilds of North Carolina to recount the fate of small people churned up by big history - in this case the enforced removal in the 1830s of Native American communities from their traditional hunting grounds. The geography is big too: long vistas of peak and valley, river and gorge - Davy Crockett country reimagined for a tale of epic struggle and doomed love, but still good, you feel, for shooting bears.
Will Cooper is a white orphan boy forced into indentured drudgery as keeper of a remote trading post at the edge of the Cherokee Nation. He likes to read Homer and but can handle a snake and play poker too. He is adopted by the local Indian chief and, over the years, prospers commercially with his hides, molasses and liquor, goes into real estate, lawyering and politics and brings the Cherokee cause to Congress. There's a hard-to-get beautiful girl who comes and goes. There's a scarred villain. There's the scrag end of the war with the North. There's a heap of feudin' and duellin'. In fact there's a heap of everything - political shenanigans, riverboat hygiene, campfire lore, Washington etiquette, Cherokee fashions (silk turbans), indigenous wildfowl, retail accountancy, whoring, how to spit-roast a possum, plus painstaking inventories of Will's shop, his attic, the voluminous saddlebags that accompany him on his innumerable excursions down this or that lonesome trail over succeeding decades.
It is an ambitious, ranging novel that (mostly) feels like an $8m read (the sum of the monstrous book advance). Frazier has the big storyteller's art. He is a careful chooser of words and in his descriptions has a way of making us look more closely at horses, rocks and water, or impressing upon us the weight of a hatchet in a man's hand. His metaphors are unforced, arising from the landscape or some aspect of 'redskin' doings. But the sheer welter of stuff at times carries us in an opposite direction to the emotional pull of the novel. Will's yearning for the girl never quite means as much to us as it does him; a bloody massacre of soldiers is gauged too readily in political terms; individual deaths are parenthesised by more urgent affairs. There's no time to lose. The book - impatient to spin the next yarn, to fathom the workings of some unusual cultural artifact, to classify another dragoon of characters in their particulars of blood provenance, dietary preference, hat size etc - refuses to dwell too long on any single incident, trivial or tragic.

Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name * Vendela Vida

Vendela Vida’s newest novel, Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name, does not shy away from dark issues. While addressing such meaty topics as rape, betrayal, and what makes us who we are, Vida somehow manages to write a book that is at the same time both achingly bleak and very funny. Her lean, spare writing disguises a world of heartache in brief, matter-of-fact sketches. “If someone gave me a pile of bones and said they were my mother’s,” says Clarissa, the novel’s narrator, “I decided I would cry for a day and move on.”
When Clarissa and her fiancĂ© return home after her fathers sudden death, she find out that he wasn’t really her biological father at all, and that her fiancĂ© knew it all along. That, topped with the fact that she was abandoned by her mother at the age of fourteen, sets her off on a spur-of-the-moment trip to Lapland in search of herself and her roots. Such journeys have a way of revealing the unexpected, and Clarissa does not encounter the truths she anticipates. While blundering about in Finnmark (the polar region where Finland and Norway overlap), she explores a bit of the indigenous Sami culture, checks into an ice hotel, and runs away from not only everyone she meets, but also everyone and everything that has made her who she is. What better way to explore your identity than by throwing yourself outside of it? What better way to test the warmth and meaning of home, than by checking into a hotel made entirely of snow and ice? Through her adventures Clarissa sheds the tethering connections of her life and slowly comes to understand, if not forgive, her mother’s choices, and perhaps her own as well.

The Echo Maker * Richard Powers

Advice to all you would be novelists out there: if you’re thinking the only way to convey the deeply subtle meaning of your book is by revealing it in a character’s dream, or, worse yet, a coming-out-of-a-coma-drug-induced dream…think again. Other people’s dreams are always boring and nonsensical.
Fortunately, Richard Powers gives up on this ridiculous notion a quarter of the way through his National Book Award winning novel, The Echo Maker. You hereby have my permission to skip these dream bits and, in fact, any part of the novel that bores you. You will likely not miss anything, and your reading experience will be much more pleasurable for it.
Powers has a habit of throwing a lot of hard science into his novels, which, if you can stick with it, will give you some good cocktail party banter, but might otherwise bore you to tears. In this book, however, he manages to get in a thumping good plot as well.
If one were to measure the success of a novel by how well it accomplishes what it set out to do, The Echo Maker is a bit of a failure. I really wish Powers had set out to do less here, because he surely did some amazing things. There were many moments over the last few weeks when I was tempted to stay on the bus just a few stops longer in order to find out what was going to happen next. There’s a mysterious car accident, a miraculous recovery, a creepy, un-explained note, a rare brain trauma, and the empty beauty of central Nebraska. All of this bookended by the annual migration of the Sandhill Crane, an event described in passages so hauntingly beautiful, I nearly obscured them with underlining.

The Emperor's Children * Claire Messud

The Emperor’s Children, by Claire Messud, is perhaps the first successful 9/11 book. Having said that, it really has nothing whatsoever to do with 9/11. That, perhaps, is the measure of its success. Marina, Julius, and Danielle, close friends at an elite Ivy League university, now suffer from a sort of Post-Graduate Distress Syndrome. Danielle, a struggling public television producer, finds herself entangled in an inappropriate affair with an older, married man. Julius, a poverty-stricken reviewer for the Village Voice, finds himself settling for the mediocrity of a ‘normal’ relationship with a financial trader who has a serious drug addiction. Marina, the beautiful and much-touted daughter of respected journalist Murray Thwaite, finds herself living at home with her parents, desperately trying to finish a nearly decade-old manuscript entitled The Emperor’s Children Have No Clothes, on the thrilling topic of how changes in childhood fashions are tied to changes in society.
Into the lives of these characters come three unexpected events: the wooing of Marina by Ludovic Seely, a cynical Australian publisher; the appearance of Frederick “Bootie” Tubbs, Marina’s befuddled autodidactic college-dropout of a cousin; and 9/11, an event that really needs no description (and, to the credit of this novel, does not get much of one).
Messud has written a complex and lovingly crafted character portrait of 3 aimless thirty-somethings living in New York City in the early Noughties. Reader beware: this could be you. The most lovely, and simultaneously frustrating, part of this book is the degree to which one sympathizes with the main characters despite their obvious foibles, fripperies, and, much of the time, superficiality. The muddled insecurity of Marina, the painfully aware self-deception of Danielle, the willing self-abnegation of Julius, and the self-absorbed monomania of “Bootie,” are all uncomfortably familiar to anyone who has lived through their late twenties/early thirties in the latter half of this century. This is quite a few of you.
Despite the richness of potential for social satire, Messud manages to tread the fine line between depth of character and comedy of manners. By the time 9/11 rolls around, we are so caught up in the life and times of these people, that it is simply another moment in their lives. Read this way, it almost seems hubristic to try to say more about it. One is grateful to Messud for leaving it to this. For leaving it to us.