Tuesday, April 23, 2013

"Flight Behavior" by Barbara Kingsolver

Flight Behavior is a novel about climate change and class differences, set among rural Appalachia and millions of monarch butterflies. While going to meet a man for a fling, dissatisfied wife and mother Dellarobia discovers the entire North American population of monarchs has descended upon her mountain. What she sees astonishes her and jolts her way of thinking, and after looking at photos online, I can't feel otherwise. Monarchs gather in enormous clumps, like grapes, among trees, and the site is truly spectacular (image below from the Monarch Butterfly Fund).

From there, Dellarobia explores her feelings about the monarchs, her marriage, her children, and her dreams, with those around her. Her father-in-law wants to log the mountain for money. Her mother-in-law never seems to approve of Dellarobia. Her husband, Cub, is kind but slow and timid. Scientist Ovid Bryon, who arrives to study the butterflies, is the first to listen to her and teach her. But Byron is also in a world completely different than her own.

Through the lens of Dellarobia's growth, the book is very much a treatise on the danger of climate change. Its message is important and broken down simply, though occasionally the reductive analogies can come off as patronizing ("You mean nuclear physics is just like buying a tub of lard from Joe Bob's Food Mart? Now, I get it!").

There's also strong element of preaching to the choir as I doubt many climate change deniers will be reading it. However, I did like that Kingsolver takes some time to explain the way in which climate change has absurdly become a Democrats vs. Republicans issue and how something that virtually all scientists agree on is framed in the media as "the debate over climate change."

While I certainly agree with everything Kingsolver argues about the danger we are causing our planet, I found the exploration of class issues more engrossing within the book itself. Where the book could have gone simplistic--the kind, educated professor helping the illiterate downtrodden or the snooty urban elite destroying the poor's pure simplicity--there's instead nuance. For example, Byron becomes angry that the local high school is uninterested in sending student volunteers to learn and study the butterflies. After all, it's a great opportunity to see science in action and build valuable skills. But the school only wants to know if it pays minimum wage--because, truthfully, the students aren't going into science fields and they aren't going to college. A mindless minimum wage job is more useful.

But, at the heart of the novel is Dellarobia, whose quest to find meaning and purpose in her life centers the story. The ending's pretty optimistic, but not outside the realm of possibility.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

"Errantry" by Elizabeth Hand

I chose Errantry from a list of top sci-fi short stories, though I wouldn't quite classify the book's stories as science-fiction. Some fall into the quirky/weird/"what the hell was that?" category into which I'd place Haruki Murakami, others have a fairy tale retelling feel (much like The Snow Child), and still others have a creepy horror edge. So an interesting collection.

Those stories in the first category can be a bit tricky. There's something perversely appealing about a story without a clear point that nonetheless feels affecting or meaningful in some way, like Hand's "Hungerford Bridge," where one friend takes another friend to see a mysterious creature called the emerald foliot--with strange conditions attached after the viewing. But other stories were less successful in this regard and just seemed random, like "Cruel Up North" and especially "Summerteenth."

I'd argue that Hand's strength are the pseudo-fairy tales, which have a fairy-tale feel and characters in a modern setting. Of those, "The Far Shore" is wistful and "Winter's Wife" and "Uncle Lou" have excellent characterization and character relationships. I might also throw "The Return of the Fire Witch" into this category, though it has a light and humorous tone that most of the other stories lack.

"Near Zennor" and "Errantry" both fit into the last category, though I much preferred "Near Zennor," which expertly captures the horror mood. In it, a bereaved husband explores an area his wife visited as a child, encountering strange things she may also have encountered.

Of all the pieces, the first story, "The Maiden Flight of McCauley's Bellerophon," was my favorite. It most closely falls into the sci-fi genre, though it has pieces of all three categories. There are great characters, flights (no pun intended...) of fancy, a looming atmosphere, and questions that aren't answered but are given the barest suggestions of conclusions.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

"The Round House" by Louise Erdrich

The Round House is told from the point of view of 13-year-old Joe, who lives with his parents on an Indian Reservation in North Dakota. One day, his mom returns home late after being brutally attacked and raped. Though his mother, Geraldine, refuses or is unable to speak much about what happened, Joe and his father, Bazil (a local judge), are determined to bring her attacker to justice.

One of the things that I was glad the book addressed--though in some ways this issue was dropped towards the end--are the challenges present in the tribal legal system. The book takes place in the 1980s, but I imagine many of the same obstacles are still in place. The location (which she doesn't know) of Geraldine's rape is of utmost importance because it signifies how the rapist can be prosecuted, and without that knowledge, the case rests in a no-man's land, unable to be prosecuted by tribal, state, or federal authorities. The novel also highlights the importance of tribal authority. Before, I would have been tempted to say, "Why do we need a separate tribal government? Can't they just fall under the same state/federal guidelines most people would?" But The Round House not only highlights the long history of atrocities against Native Americans, it also demonstrates the significance of continued tribal autonomy in issues like prosecuting rape.

I've written before (as a significant problem in We Were the Mulvaneys and as a nagging issue in Finnikin of the Rock) about my concerns with novels that address rape from the point of view of the male relatives--the husbands, sons, and brothers of raped women. On the one hand, I would never say that a story about rape must always be from the victim's point of view. Clearly there are interesting and compelling issues to be explored about how family is affected by a traumatic event perpetrated against one of its members. But, at the same time, I can't help but feel that something is wrong in a novel where a woman is raped and the book is only about men--her son, her son's friends, her husband, her rapist. Part of the point of the book is how Geraldine shrinks into herself--nearly loses herself completely--after the rape, but we never learn what's going on in her head the way we do with Joe and Bazil. And, in some small way, to me, that is doubly-diminishing. She is re-victimized as a non-entity, present just an object for the men to react against. This is not to say that The Round House is sexist or treats rape lightly, particularly because the book clearly shows Erdrich's sympathy with survivors of sexual violence and Erdrich works to emphasize significant problems with our legal system (something that's timely given that sexual assault on tribal lands was a big issue with the recent re-adoption of VAWA). Nonetheless, I was disappointed to see Geraldine given so little character, though she does emerge more strongly at the end of the novel.

Despite my disappointment with aspects of Geraldine's characterization, her son, Joe, is fully drawn, and Erdrich does an excellent job of capturing his range of emotions and confusion. At thirteen he's starting to become an adult, and the challenges he faces in seeing his parents as people (not just all-knowing parents) for the first time and being privy to "adult" information are addressed compassionately and intelligently.

The book is the April selection for my book club, and I'm most looking forward to discussing the ending, which is somewhat surprising. I can't decide if it's realistic or not, or whether it's too realistic... I'm just not sure, though it certainly felt a bit incomplete. But I think my reaction can be attributed to my desire for a certain kind of ending rather than to failure on Erdrich's part.