Book Review: THE PENELOPIAD – Ithaca during Odysseus’s absence

Atwood, Margaret - The Penelopiad PMThe Penelopiad
Margaret Atwood

While Odysseus was gone twenty years fighting the Trojan War and then trying to get home to Ithaca, his faithful wife Penelope deflected her many rowdy suitors by endlessly weaving and secretly unweaving a shroud for her father-in-law. Upon his triumphant return, he slays the suitors and hangs twelve handmaids who disrespected him by slandering him and sleeping with the suitors.

Little is said in The Odyssey about Penelope and the maids beyond their use as symbols demonstrating the virtues of womanly patience and modesty while condemning women and/or servants for demonstrating autonomy.

Wondering about the story of Penelope and the maids, Atwood has written The Penelopiad, a tale narrated by Penelope from Hades with a chorus provided by the maids. Penelope traces her life from childhood, when her father tried to kill her by throwing her into the sea, to Odysseus’s return, killing of suitors, condemnation of the maids, and to her dealings in the afterlife. The interactions she has with individuals from Ithaca in Hades are quite funny as are the rare comments she makes on today’s society.

The maids, functioning as a traditional Greek chorus, comment on Penelope’s narrative, and through their stories and poems present a different version of events leading to their execution.

Margaret Atwood is among my top five favorite authors, if not my very favorite, and here it’s taken me almost fifteen years to read The Penelopiad. I might have been avoiding it because I’m not that interested in Greek and Roman mythology. That attitude was unwarranted. Like all of Atwood’s novels, it’s a romp. I tore through the book, completely enjoying the reading experience, finding Penelope interesting, the writing exquisite, and the chorus constructions quite fascinating.

Given the two different accounts leading to the hanging of the maids–and the vivid image of their twitching feet–not to mention the separate account told by Homer in The Odyssey, the book opens a window on how inaccurate ostensibly authoritative accounts can be and casts doubt on the reliability of narrators. It also indicts class systems, showing the depravities the maids endured just because they were not born to wealthy or noble families. I wish there had been more about Penelope’s decision to remain faithful to Odysseus who was described as charismatic but not particularly trustworthy.

I would recommend not having the same attitude I did toward The Penelopiad; it’s a fun and quick read with intriguing themes. I should have known that Margaret Atwood wouldn’t have let me down!

Book Review: IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK, sadly as relevant today as when published in 1974

Baldwin, James - If Beale Street Could Talk (4)If Beale Street Could Talk
James Baldwin

Originally published in 1974, sadly, If Beale Street Could Talk is just as timely today as it was then. Fonny and Tish, a young couple who have known each other since childhood are embarking on a romantic relationship when Fonny runs afoul of a white police officer. Shortly thereafter, Fonny is arrested for a crime he didn’t commit. Fonny’s lawyer is sympathetic but expensive. Fonny’s mother and sisters disapprove of him, and his father is a troubled alcoholic. Impotent in prison, Fonny relies solely on pregnant Tish and her family and the limited help he can get from his father. While in jail, he, Tish, and their loved ones realize how institutionalized racism is and how difficult to overcome. The victim of the crime is also manipulated by police and is denied justice. This book made me feel sad and angry, even more so because racism in the United States hasn’t improved in almost fifty years. Yet, the love of Tish’s family and the hope embodied by the baby provided a slight solace in the face of so much unfairness and inequity.

Book Review: GINGERBREAD, not to my taste

Oyeyemi, Helen - Gingerbread (3)Gingerbread
Helen Oyeyemi

I have to give Helen Oyeyemi props for her inventiveness in Gingerbread. The book is completely and utterly unique, following three generations of Lee women, Margot and Harriett who left the fantastical and possibly mythical country Druhástrana, and Perdita, born in the UK, but wanting to return to her mother and grandmother’s homeland. The elder women were able to escape under the patronage of Aristide Kercheval, and the two families’ entanglement creates tensions that reverberate into the present and threaten Perdita’s safety. Meanwhile, the book throws shade on capitalism and the greed that accompanies it as well as isolationism. I appreciated the sentiment, but overall, it was too magical for my taste, with dolls that talked and a house whose rooms changed configuration, for example—not that the book represented itself as anything else!

Though there is without a doubt an audience for this book–clearly, given the phenomenal reviews–unfortunately, it didn’t include me. It would include those who enjoy magical realism.

Book Review: PICKLE’S PROGRESS, the arrival of a depressed young woman disrupts the delicate balance of a dysfunctional family

Butler, Marcia - Pickle's Progress CoverPickle’s Progress
Marcia Butler

Stan and Karen McArdle, slightly drunk, were driving home across the George Washington Bridge when they saw a young woman in their lane. Stan swerved and crashed, hitting the railing, but instead of calling 911, immediately called his twin, Pickle, a police officer. The woman, Junie, had been on the bridge with her boyfriend, Jacob, with whom she had a suicide pact. They’d argued, and when she turned away, he jumped. Karen ushered Junie into the backseat of their Volvo and vowed to take care of her.

Karen installed Junie into the basement of the brownstone she, Stan, and Pickle owned together. The brownstone itself was a source of contention since Karen and Stan had renovated the bottom two levels and moved in a year prior, but Pickle was impatiently waiting for the renovation of his top floors.

Flashbacks reveal that Karen, Stan, and Pickle have had a long, complicated relationship, made more difficult by the influence of (now deceased) Mrs. McArdle who inexplicably favored Stan and despised Pickle. The delicate balance of their threesome was disturbed by Junie’s arrival. Pickle believed she was his soulmate and considered retiring from the police force, Stan stopped drinking and relaxed some of his obsessive ticks, and Karen feared the destruction of the harmony she’d stoked for years.

Pickle’s Progress is a character-driven novel, and it focuses more on Pickle and Karen, to me the least likable. While I don’t require characters to be likeable–in fact, too likable, they lose their complexity–but Pickle and Karen are simply mean. Pickle, for example, lies about Jacob to Junie so he will have a better chance with her. Karen consistently puts down Stan and Pickle and manipulates those around her, when she isn’t ordering them directly. The title implies that Pickle will develop psychologically, but while circumstances change for him, it doesn’t seem that he has really come to terms with his past or resolved to alter his behavior in the future.

The dialogue is written to be sharp and witty, but to me it didn’t land, and instead felt clunky and labored. At one point, Karen and Stan were compared to George and Martha of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? If Butler was trying to emulate his repartee, she wasn’t quite skillful enough to execute it (though who is?).

An epilogue, in the form of a letter written three years after the main events of the novel, indicate that some interesting developments occurred, perhaps more interesting than those we were privy to in the narrative.

I suppose if I am reaching, I would say the novel speaks to the need to forgive oneself and step away from the past to find love in the present, but the message isn’t completely clear, and I’m a bit baffled what I’ve read.

Thanks to NetGalley and Central Avenue Publishing for providing an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: LOST CHILDREN ARCHIVE, unaccompanied minors crossing borders

Luiselli, Valeria - Lost Children Archive (3)Lost Children Archive
Valeria Luiselli

A woman and her husband met in New York City while working on a sound project documenting the hundreds of languages spoken in the metropolis. After the four-year project concluded, they hadn’t made a plan. The woman wanted to document the sounds of children in the immigrant courts while the man wanted to capture an “inventory of echoes” of the Apaches, because “they were the last of something.” To complete his multi-year project, he had to relocate to the southwest, and he presented it as a fait accompli to the woman.

The two loaded up a used Volvo and headed cross-country, along with the boy, ten, and the girl, five, and they pass through Virginia, Tennessee, stopping at Graceland, making a stop in Oklahoma to visit the town Geronimo, where a confrontation with a local is tense until the parents say they are writing a screenplay for a spaghetti western. In Oklahoma, they stop at Fort Sill to see Geronimo’s grave; they are so disappointed to learn that Fort Sill is not Fort Still, the name they’d been using. Also in Oklahoma, they go to a lake to swim, and it’s one of my favorite scenes. One of the other women there is sitting in a chair at the shore, but instead of looking out over the lake, she’d looking back at the beach. My favorite moments in the novel are those rooted in detail, such as when the family stayed at motel dedicated to Elvis or when they fight over what to listen to in the car.

One of the things the parents decide the children shouldn’t hear is a series of stories about unaccompanied, undocumented children reaching the Mexican border. This story is personal to the woman since her friend, Manuela, had two daughters in the system. The girls were scheduled to be deported; instead, they disappeared, but Manuela believed they would find her in New York. At the same time, the woman was reading Elegies for Lost Children, a book within a book, chronicling the journey of seven children under the care of a coyote.

Still, when the woman learns that a group of undocumented children is being sent home, she learns the location of the airstrip and the family rushes to watch the children file onto the small craft and the plane take off, after which the mother flails in rage, hurling insults at the border patrol officers, “until I feel my husband’s arms surrounding me from behind, holding me, tight. Not an embrace but a containment.”

As the family approaches Apacheria, their destination, the boy takes more agency, clearly having heard more than the parents realized. With his sister, he thinks he may be able to save his parents’ marriage and solve the problem of the lost children, though he doesn’t understand the danger he’s putting them in.

A very unusual novel, Lost Children Archive recounts the unnamed family’s road trip but also the story of the (named) undocumented children traveling with a coyote in the fictional Elegies for Lost Children. At times, the two stories overlap. Parallels, too, are drawn between the forcible removal of the Native Americans and the deportation of the immigrants as well as with children on the orphan trains running from New York to the midwest.

Other texts are woven into the narrative such as Lord of the Flies, The Road, and David Bowie’s “Space Oddity.” Circles, cycles, echoes, and repetition appear frequently.

The book contains sections that are lists of inventories of the boxes belonging to the man, woman, and boy, including pictures which are reproduced. The woman’s box was full of material for her project on undocumented children, and she’d collected duplicates of mortality reports which were heartbreaking, perhaps even more so because of their dry, clinical language.

I liked Lost Children Archive less when it veered toward the philosophical (often unnecessary because the narrative unfurled the theme) or times when it seemed to try too hard. An entire section (about the length of a chapter), for example, was a single paragraph. While I can identify reasons for that choice, it didn’t make it any more pleasant to read. At the end of the book, Luiselli included an author’s note with a statement on her beliefs on intertextuality, listing key sources and “borrowed” phrases. I didn’t know whether to be thankful, because I did miss some of the references, or irritated, because the note was a bit condescending.

Overall, Lost Children Archive, though, was successful in its risk-taking and lovely in its writing. I learned more about the harrowing journeys undertaking by child immigrants and feel disbelief that the United States doesn’t just gather them in our arms and say, “There, there.”