Generations of Winter was originally conceived as a mini-series for PBS, but when the project was shelved, Vassily Aksynov’s publisher convinced him to make a novel out of the project. The novel was published in the US in 1994, and 10 years later, in late 2004, a mini-series based on the novel made it to Russian television where it was a resounding success. Considering the subject matter, the success of Generations of Winter in Russia must represent a difficult acknowledgement of the horrors of Soviet history which remain unmarked by monuments and for which the government has never officially apologized. Aksyonov is writing from firsthand knowledge when his characters are hauled off in the middle of the night by NKVD agents. Aksyonov’s mother, Evgenia Ginzburg, was sent to the camps when he was five, and he joined her in exile in Siberia when he was 16. He followed in his mother’s footsteps as a writer as well. Ginzburg is well-known for her memoirs of the gulag and exile, Journey into the Whirlwind and Within the Whirlwind. Many reviewers have described Generations of Winter as a War and Peace for the 20th century. Aksyonov’s book is a sprawling, multi-generational tale set between the years 1925 and 1945. It centers on the Gradov family, lively members of the Moscow elite whose lives are shattered by purges, torture and war. Generations of Winter is a historical novel at heart. It’s pages are populated by real historical figures, most notably Stalin, who mingle with the fictional Gradovs. Though the book’s subject matter is difficult, the Gradov’s shine, and the narrative is breathtaking in its scope.
T.C. Boyle is in a groove. He’s that rare combination of a bold writer who is consistently fun and seemingly, he’s becoming more prolific. His last novel, the Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired bestseller The Women, was released in 2009 and now, quick on its heels comes his 13th novel, When the Killing’s Done, a colorful, quick-witted and entirely plausible account of environmental activism and bureaucratic bumbling in and around California’s Channel Islands. Topically it might remind you of the cerulean warbler section of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, but whereas Franzen’s foray into wildlife issues felt so tangential and agonized into being that there was a temptation to skim through that meandering West Virginia bird sanctuary section, When the Killing’s Done is thoroughly engaging and cohesive. There isn’t a dull moment in it.
It’s always been Boyle’s great gift to take the reader somewhere (Alaska, the Hudson River Valley 300 years ago, Kinsey’s inner circle, a pot farm in Northern California) and completely convince you of the accuracy of the surroundings he gives you. Not just geographically, but politically, socially and culturally. Bits of Boyle stick with me; In the early 90s, new to California, I read his hilariously picaresque Budding Prospects, the pot farm novel, in which a character describes a San Francisco burrito as the shape and size of a skein of yarn (with considerably more heft). I have thought with pleasure of this description virtually every time I have lifted a burrito since. Which is to say, roughly a thousand times.
I became even fonder of Boyle after reading his 1995 novel The Tortilla Curtain, which I interpreted, rather desperately, as a small validation of my newspaper career. In the early 90s, I worked for the Ventura County edition of the Los Angeles Times. Resume-wise, you’d have called this a stepping stone, but I recall it more as rowing in the newspaper equivalent of a slave ship. The paper was making a “push” into the county, a dreary no-man’s land between the busy San Fernando Valley, where porn was made, and the relative paradise of Santa Barbara, where there were art-house movies, good bookstores and a taqueria Julia Child was known to frequent. Our local readership was perilously small, but we published two zoned editions of this local section. No story was too small to cover. Any idle musing that struck an editor during his or her commute could and would be turned into a story by we eager minions. That was how I once came to write a profile of Highway 101. I am referring to an inert stretch of tar.
This was all educational, but miserable, and the concern that barely anyone was reading what we were writing loomed large. Then along came The Tortilla Curtain, a witty, fast moving study in contrasts between the entitled residents of gated communities on the edges of the Santa Monica Mountains and the poor Latino immigrants who have the temerity to make them nervous. Boyle, who lives in Montecito – for most of the last two decades, in a Frank Lloyd Wright home, lucky man – knew so much about the politics of pettiness and fear that ran rampant through what we often called “suburban enclaves” that I was certain he was reading our zoned edition of the Los Angeles Times. Someone was paying attention. And unlike us, he had a true sense of the big picture.
Many years later and many miles away from Ventura County, my realization that Boyle had written a novel about the Channel Islands nearly made my heart skip a beat. This is precisely the book I always wanted to read. From Ventura, the Channel Islands loom like magical temptations out there on the Western horizon, mostly just the long low ridge of Anacapa (technically, three small islands) and the green hills of Santa Cruz Island. Santa Rosa is hidden behind the hulk of Santa Cruz, and San Miguel is farther north, off Santa Barbara, but reportedly, nothing happened there. I visited Anacapa and Santa Cruz, a good boat ride’s distance away, whenever there was the thinnest journalistic excuse to do so. There were bureaucratic control issues — the Nature Conservancy owned most of Santa Cruz but the National Park Service had a say in what happened on part of that vast island (four times the size of Manhattan, Boyle tells us), as well as all of Anacapa and even in the 1990s there were the same ecological issues that Boyle focuses on. The islands are beautiful, mysterious and though largely deserted, rich with history (once they had belonged to people, actual people, mostly ranchers, who got to live there). They exist as time capsules of what California might have looked like 200 years ago. On these blissful days reporting out on the islands, you could count on a day of freedom from yet another editorial whipping. Even more alluring, you could imagine all the histories that might have been.
Boyle has done just that, but put it on the page, interweaving true facts and scenarios with a group of fictional modern day characters with warring interests in the ecological future of the islands. National Park Service biologist Alma Boyd Takesue is leading the fight against the invasive species overrunning the native populations of the islands, in the case of Anacapa, black rats who landed there via shipwreck in 1853 (true story) and on Santa Cruz, feral pigs descended from the pigs left there by ranchers. Alma’s grandmother survived a 1946 shipwreck (fiction) that killed her grandfather and spent three weeks shooing away black rats in a fisherman’s shack before being rescued. Now Alma wants to eradicate those rats. And when they’re gone, she plans to move onto Santa Cruz’s pigs, which are destroying the habit of the native island fox (a smaller breed than is found on the mainland).
Her main opponent is the Santa Barbara-based leader of a group called For the Protection of Animals (FPA), Dave LaJoy, a wealthy, vitriolic middle-aged vegetarian whose favorite recreational activity is to pilot his big motor boat out to the Channel Islands and enjoy nature while swilling beer and eating hummus sandwiches. LaJoy is an animal lover – he believes even a black rat has as much right on Anacapa as some native bird – and a people hater, with the possible exception of his girlfriend Anise, a beautiful folksinger. Anise had the unusual pleasure of having spent most of her childhood in the 1970s on Santa Cruz; her mother Rita worked as a cook for a sheep rancher who leased a sizeable chunk of the land (the section of the book involving Rita’s days on Santa Cruz is wonderfully evocative). In a neat twist, the pigs brought there by earlier ranchers lead to the ruin of that exhausting but rewarding ranch life, and yet still, Anise wants to save them.
The book flies by – LaJoy, with his “rusty dreadlocks” and fits of rage, is horrible yet hilariously entertaining, a man driven by arrogance and conviction in equal parts – but it’s not just a good yarn; Boyle has a real point to make, about population control of all beasts (and mankind). Alma is the protagonist certainly, but that doesn’t make her right in all circumstances. What for instance, would ground zero truly be for the Channel Islands, in terms of ecology? To truly erase all signs of man’s past interference with the natural habitat requires fresh interference by man. If the pigs are removed, what will become prey for the eagles that were drawn to the island by the ready food source the pigs presented? The island fox, as it turns out. So the raptors now have to be caught and removed. The minute Alma gets rid of one invasive species, it seems she has another to deal with. Who, or what, is meant to have ownership of and residency on these islands? The question isn’t really answerable, and Boyle plays with that ambiguity to great effect. The basic facts of what he’s telling, through told through fictional characters, really happened. And I finally have actual proof that Boyle reads the paper, having found this on his website: “…I still preserve a yellowing newspaper headline from six or seven years ago (it’s pinned beneath a magnet on the refrigerator door), which reads: EAGLES ARRIVE AS PIGS ARE KILLED, a reference to the reintroduction of the bald eagle and the eradication of the feral pig.”
Boyle has a joyful willingness to go over the top, trips he almost always negotiates with uncanny expertise. There’s a wildly harrowing scene involving LaJoy dragging a group of idealistic college kids up into the canyons of Santa Cruz Island during a powerful rain storm. He makes you see them slogging through the mud, soaked and shivering but propelled forward by this bombastic, charismatic jerk and we see how LaJoy clings to his sense of rightness even when it has become terribly apparent he’s made a huge mistake. In terms of the narrative, this would have satisfied as LaJoy’s comeuppance, but Boyle has another, less successful and surprisingly harsh final set piece in mind for the founding members of FPA.
But because of all he gets right, because of his fine sense of the big picture and his ability to convey it using characters that always come alive, I can forgive him it. I can even forgive him the character Toni Walsh, an utterly unappealing, rather dim seeming reporter from the local paper. She’s disdained and distrusted by both Alma and LaJoy. Although she’s covering environmental issues, Toni Walsh appears to have no interest in nature. She spends most of her expeditions to the islands fishing in her purse for cigarettes and never wears suitable clothing. Here Toni is in a torrential downpour on Santa Cruz. LaJoy has brought her there looking for pig corpses to photograph, images he hopes will outrage the community. Her lone concession to the weather is an Easter egg pink slicker, a concession cancelled out by her unwise decision to wear matching sandals. LaJoy wants to know whether she can keep hiking. “Hunched, pale, a streak of yellowish mud painted across her cheek like a tribal cicatrice, she just shrugs. ‘I don’t know,’ she says after a moment, and here’s that stab of a smile again – a good sign, a very good sign – ‘I’m afraid I’m more of a city girl. But anything for a story, right?'” I swear I never would have worn pink sandals to Santa Cruz. But this joyful skewering suggests that Boyle has met a few of my brethren.
Infrequent Millions contributor Buzz Poole has written for numerous publications and is the author of Madonna of the Toast. He is also the proprietor of a blog by the same name.“Illustrated book” – the term is as vague as it is precise. Most children’s books are illustrated, yet they are rarely lumped into this category. The same is true of graphic novels. So what’s left? Photography, graphic design, typography, illustrations, artist monographs, pop culture kitsch, collectibles, graffiti, architecture, courtroom sketches – really any book on any topic in which the illustrations outnumber the words, permitting the illustrations to tell the story.So begins a semi-regular “illustrated book” column here at The Millions. Most of the books covered – but not all of them – will be new releases; some installments will be a mishmash of titles, while others will be themed; there will no children’s books; there will be no graphic novels, though there will be illustrated fiction (more on what differentiates the two next time). I reserve the right to contradict what I have just written, though I promise all books discussed in this column will contain images. Like the best novels, poems and essays, the most intriguing illustrated books transcend their authors. I consider three such books below.1. Sites of Impact: Meteorite Craters Around the WorldSites of Impact not only takes us way beyond photographer Stan Gaz but also rockets us into outer space as we imagine the forceful trajectories of meteorites that have collided with Earth. Gaz’s stunning black-and-white aerial studies of these impact craters show us what millions of years look like and how these visible remnants of destruction and decay permit scientists to study and speculate about the planet’s geological and biological histories. These craters, in Gaz’s words, “are footprints of the stars… the circle of life, writ large; physically, environmentally, and metaphorically.” Complementing Gaz’s thoughts about the journeys he made for this tremendous project, impact-cratering expert Christian Koeberl outlines the history of scientific inquiry regarding these sites. And Robert Silberman situates Gaz’s work in the continuum of landscape photography and its efforts to capture the sublime. Their informative essays provide context for the work, but Gaz’s eye for conveying the magnitude of the unknown requires no explanation. These locations existed before language and will doubtless exist well beyond it. Getting lost in Gaz’s photographs is an intimidating experience, but they impart a greater respect for the natural world. They remind us of humanity’s status as a blip on geology’s timeline.2. Sometimes I Think, Sometimes I AmVery much rooted in language, Sometimes I Think, Sometimes I Am is actually two books in one, like Russian nesting dolls, albeit ones with onion heads. Sara Fanelli illustrates the themes of “Devils and Angels,” “Love,” “Colour” (which gets it own little book), “Mythology” and “the Absurd” as prompted and framed by artful adages from Wassily Kadinsky and Francis Bacon, Melville, Nabokov, Calvino, and others. Whereas Maira Kalman reacts to people and objects, Fanelli uses the words of artists and writers to create her worlds. The sketchbook aesthetic – a heavily trod illustrated book niche – succeeds here because of the intimacy and whimsy of Fanelli’s work. Writer Marina Warner likens Fanelli to Paul Klee, highlighting the work’s “unencumbered rhythm of the doodle.” In most of the selections text weaves, crouches and splatters, participating in the images, as in the illustrations of Stephaine Mallarmé’s poignant advice about writing poetry: “To write a weepy poem try onion juice.” The richness of Fanelli’s collage-like illustrations draw you back again and again to these pages, especially if you are in search of a timeless bit of inspiration, a la Lewis Carroll’s “It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards.”3. Hundertwasser Complete Graphic Work 1951-1976Hundertwasser, one of Austria’s most famous twentieth century artists, would most certainly agree with Carroll’s sentiment. His Complete Graphic Work 1951-1976 is one of the most elegant (and amazingly affordable) gems of a book I’ve seen in a long time. The black linen case, foil stamping and six-color printing emulate the original edition of this catalogue, which the artist assembled on the occasion of a 1973 tour of museums in Australia and New Zealand. According to the book’s original publisher, Hundertwasser’s idea was to produce something “small enough to be carried in a handbag or jacket pocket like a much-loved treasure.” Apparently before the book went out of print in 1983 it had sold over 750,000 copies. It’s not hard to see why; more confounding is the question of why it fell out of print, which is never actually addressed here. Luckily, it is available again and the paintings and woodcuts pulse colorfully with the world’s myths and the patterns of the natural world. The spiraling circles in particular echo certain of the landscapes of Stan Gaz’s photographs. Faces with metallic eyes also figure heavily in this work, all of them in concert with the environment. Hundertwasser was “green” before it was a catchall spin word. He reveled in nature’s ability to nurture our spirits and this comes across in the writing paired with each painting as well as some of the biographical material.Future installments of this series will include a look at illustrated fiction and self-aware art movements. What else would be of interest to readers when it comes to illustrated books?
There is so much I wish I could unknow about Emma Cline and her debut novel The Girls. I wish, for instance, that I didn’t know Cline was 25 when she sold the book, or that Random House paid a reported $2 million-plus for it as part of a three-book deal. I wish, too, that it weren’t so obvious that the cult that Cline’s narrator, Evie Boyd, joins in the novel is based on the Manson Family, whose senseless 1969 rampage at the home of Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate has been the subject of countless books and documentaries. Finally, I wish Cline hadn’t chosen to tell the story in the retrospective first person, both because the heavy-handed foreshadowing in the framing story kills any lingering doubt over what’s going to happen, but also because Cline’s narrative voice is so much smarter and more emotionally aware than the girl she’s writing about that it’s often hard to believe they’re the same person.
Cline is a gifted stylist, and her subject is a sensational one, which is no doubt why her editors saw in The Girls the potential for a breakout literary thriller like Marisha Pessl’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics or Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. But I fear New York publishing has jumped the gun here. The weight of expectation that comes with the headline-grabbing book advance combined with Cline’s inexperience as novelist cancels out the many flashes of fine writing in The Girls, leaving the reader wishing this talented young writer had been allowed to develop slowly, under the radar, instead of being showered with cash and pre-publicity before her craft had caught up to her prodigious gifts.
Those gifts are on display in the novel’s perfectly realized opening scene when Evie first sees the female acolytes of the Charlie Manson stand-in, here called Russell Hadrick, in the summer of 1969. The scene unfolds like the opening shot of a 1970s art-house thriller, all saturated color and sinuous slow-motion, as Evie watches the scruffy, long-haired girls saunter through a suburban picnic, seeming to “glide above all that was happening around them, tragic and separate. Like royalty in exile.”
Evie, a lonely 14-year-old whose parents are divorcing, is mesmerized by the girls’ mix of grunginess and hauteur, noticing how “a ripple of awareness followed them through the park.
The sun spiked through the trees like always — the drowsy willows, the hot wind gusting over the picnic blankets — but the familiarity of the day was disturbed by the path the girls cut across the regular world. Sleek and thoughtless as sharks breaching the water.
The novel begins to sag soon after this bravura start, though it takes a while to figure that out because Cline writes so well even when there isn’t much going on. Cline sometimes tries too hard and she might want to dial down the reflexive sentence fragments, but she has a natural’s eye for the telling detail, the single image that makes a character indelible: a girl with a “face as blank as a spoon,” a smarmy young drug runner whose “upper-class upbringing kicked in like a first language.” A few pages later, Cline nails the look of the late-1960s Haight-Ashbury in one pitch-perfect sentence: “Everyone was healthy, tan, and heavy with decoration, and if you weren’t, that was a thing, too — you could be some moon creature, chiffon over lamp shades, on a kitchari cleanse that stained all your dishes with turmeric.”
But whatever they may say in MFA programs these days, a novel is more than the sum of its sentences. For much of the first 100 pages, before Evie gets caught up in Russell’s cult, The Girls is a glacially slow tale of a lonely teenager struggling to come to terms with her parents’ divorce. Here and there the social and political freakiness of the Vietnam-era 1960s penetrates Evie’s cocoon-like suburban existence, but for far too long the book reads like a well-written but underplotted Judy Blume novel.
One plods through this familiar territory waiting for the shock of Evie’s immersion into the cult, only to find oneself once again dropped into a world that all too neatly matches one’s expectations. Cline has combined a few of the real-life characters for narrative simplicity, and moved the group’s base of operations from a ranch north of Los Angeles to a ranch north of San Francisco, but in every other way she has simply inserted the fictional Evie as a minor player in the true-crime story of the Manson Family.
Here we have Russell/Charlie, a scuzzy Flower Power Wizard of Oz in buckskins and bare feet yammering on about free love and emancipation from straight-world hangups while dreaming of being a rock star. Here we have an actual rock star, Mitch Lewis, based on Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson, who befriended Manson and introduced him to music producers that Manson thought would make him a star. And most important of all, we have the teenage girls who idolize Russell/Charlie, sleep with him, cook and clean up after him — and ultimately kill for him.
Cline is very good on the heady concoction of big-sister admiration and suppressed sexual longing that draws Evie to one of these girls, Suzanne Parker. If she had distilled the relationship between these two — one a lost, love-hungry suburban teen, the other a knowing, manipulative would-be murderer — into a taut short story, or else deviated from the Manson Family script to carry Evie and Suzanne’s relationship to its logical conclusion, perhaps Cline could have added some fresh perspective on one of the most exhaustively documented crimes in American history. As it is, by hewing to the history of the Manson murders, and tossing in Evie as an innocent bystander, Cline manages only a pallid fictional retelling of a famous story that readers can get in more vivid form in Jeff Guinn’s excellent 2013 biography Manson or prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi’s 1974 true-crime classic Helter Skelter.
Younger readers, for whom the turbulent ’60s are as distant and exotic as World War II is to a Gen Xer like me, may not be as put off by the second-hand quality of the historical material in The Girls. But even readers who know nothing about the Manson murders and the period that gave rise to them may wonder whether Evie’s decisions make emotional sense. Why would this bright, ordinary kid run off to a commune where the girls scavenge trash out of dumpsters and where on her first night she’s forced to give a blow job to the filthy little twerp who runs the place?
This, of course, is one of the enduring mysteries of the real Manson story. Many of Manson’s followers were ordinary suburban kids, and one, Leslie Van Houten, who was recently cleared for parole after 47 years in prison for the murders of Leno and Rosemary LaBianca, was famously a homecoming queen. But beneath this veneer of ordinariness, according to Guinn’s Manson, Van Houten was, like most of Manson’s followers, caught up in the madness of the ’60s, dropping acid in high school and running away at age 17 to the Haight.
This ultimately is what is most glaringly absent from The Girls, the deep gash in the societal fabric that swallowed up a generation of troubled kids. In 1969, America was losing a bloody war in Vietnam. The inner cities were exploding. Drugs and sex were everywhere. College kids were going underground to declare war on the United States, and high school kids were burning their draft cards and heading to San Francisco. In that atmosphere, which is curiously missing from Cline’s much-hyped debut, Manson’s apocalyptic ravings about a coming race war that would cleanse the planet of everyone but his followers could sound almost mainstream.
Contrary to popular belief, books are meant for multi-tasking. You can eat with a book, drink with a book, even sleep with a book; it’s all a question of the right book for the right occasion. For some people, that occasion will be at a bar where you’ll hear the zizzing of vuvuzelas, the shouting of national anthems, the thumping of a jabulani. It’s hard to justify spending hours in front of the screen, drinking beer no less, unless, of course, you bring a book. Then you are reading, drinking, watching.
After trying a few others and getting bored (or drunk) I thought that Bill Buford’s Among the Thugs was the perfect book for bars during the World Cup, despite the fact that it’s not about international soccer. It is, however, a famous book, which is to say, it seems that most people have read it; I hadn’t read it, but when I began to read it, I realized why most people have read it: once you start it’s impossible to stop. It’s a sanguine, rowdy, raucous account of an American journalist that braves it with Manchester United hooligans. But the book is more than just brash violence and ballsy reporting, it’s hopping borders, skipping fare on planes, pissing onto people’s plates.
Although much of what Buford narrates is about England of a certain era — lagers, crisps, skinheads, oi music — hooligans and their fanaticism can be found all over the world. This is life in the cheap seats: “There was a narrow human alley, and I joined the mob pushing its way through for a place from which to watch the match. Except there was no place. There was a moveable crush. It was impossible once inside to change my mind.”
Buford writes with impeccable rhythm and clarity. You can read Among the Thugs as book of brilliant soccer grotesques: “a tall very sunburnt man wearing very little clothing”; “He was short, dumpy, and balding, and wearing a white linen suit that would have flattered a man many times thinner… his forehead was damp and clammy, and his skin had the quality of wet synthetic underpants.” I could go on, but I don’t want you to vomit like so many of Buford’s subjects do after a few too many warm lagers.
Published in 1991, the book precedes the more recent craze for immersive non-fiction, and as a work of plain old journalism, it is written with amazing intelligence. Buford is cognizant of the many ways he might fall into journalistic clichés. He names them, contemplates them, then moves on. The one you’d most expect, as does Buford, is that he’ll go native, start throwing back the lagers, and wolfing down the crisps, but he doesn’t. Instead he observes that there’s something exhilarating about being with and yelling with other people, whether it be scoring a goal, or breaking a window.
Simon Kuper’s Soccer Against The Enemy is good for half-assed reading for different reasons. It’s a series of articles written over the span of nine years that describe football: its history, its people, its fans around the world in fifteen to twenty-minute reads. The commentary can sound a little outdated, but the story is probably as entertaining as it was a decade ago. Kuper is interested in examining football’s role in culture and politics, why it means so much to so many people, so he spends nine years traveling all over the world as a journalist to figure it out. Most of what Kuper discovers applies to this year’s World Cup.
Kuper’s account of soccer in the former Soviet Union will be familiar to those who followed the North Korean national team this year, their fearful faces and their puppet fan base (that literally had a conductor). In the USSR, soccer coaches are sent to Siberia. Secret Police run their own teams. Kuper arrives just after the fall of the Wall, and immerses himself in the great changes on the former Soviet soccer field. In what was once the only arena in life where fans could yell things like, “Go urinate in front of Lenin’s Mausoleum” to the game’s referees, now Kuper finds fans bored with much greater freedom. The players, rather than priding themselves on this foul-mouthed fan-base as they once did, hardly run after the ball; they’re too busy daydreaming about signing a contract in the West.
Football Against the Enemy also explains the draw game in soccer. Many of those low-scoring games were examples of catenaccio, a tactical style, that is often attributed to the Italians (it means “padlock” in Italian, but it is now a word in English according to the OED). Kuper actually hangs out with the star coach of various Spanish and Italian sides, Helenio Herrera, who some credit with having invented this defensive style of play. In catenaccio, the most of the team defends, thanks to an extra defensive player called the sweeper, waiting for an error; when it gets one, it sends the ball to the front lines, where the strikers can sneak a shot without taking a major risk. According to Coach Herrera, it’s French, not Italian and it’s a libero, not a sweeper. It doesn’t really matter now that nearly everyone uses it when they have to, hence the abundance of low scoring ties at the beginning of this World Cup.
One of my favorite chapters in the book, “Africa (In Brief)” examines the continent’s historically underprivileged position in FIFA, as well as the press’ attitude towards African teams, much of which has been repeated this year in various languages. The age-old criticism? The Africans are disorganized and they don’t train. As Kuper is quick to point out, aside from North Africa, most of the African nations couldn’t even play to qualify in 1994 due to poverty or war. Indeed, we do not know the real conditions behind these teams and their pristine Nike uniforms (in one case “the coach of Ghana has to beg petrol from the Minister of Sport before he can drive into the bush to look at players.”).
Then we get to South Africa, 1992. As captured in Clint Eastwood’s Invictus, as well as J.M. Coetzee’s Summertime, everything, even sports come color-coded in South Africa. Just take a look at the Bafana Bafana (Zulu for the Boys explains Kuper): there are hardly any white players. Then look at South Africa’s rugby or cricket team: the opposite is true. Kuper, born in Uganda of Dutch heritage and upbringing, heads to South Africa for the first multiracial election, and to witness Nelson Mandela’s first visit to the South African national football team.
When Mandela comes, just like in the Clint Eastwood movie, he says, “I support all sports.” The story Kuper recounts with testimony from government ministers, players, coaches is surprising. Despite many setbacks, as Kuper writes, “On a day when they are feeling optimistic South Africans say that their country has everything: gold, sunshine, and an ideal mix of white and black. They tell you that the new South Africa will be as rich as Switzerland, have no crime, and that it will win the 1998 World Cup.” Sure, fifteen years later not much of that is true, but not even Kuper for all of his soccer savvy could foresee South Africa as the host of the World Cup. I guess there is something to be said for that: cheers.
I will tell you a secret. If you ask a bookseller about a novel and they say, “It’s really funny,” you needn’t read that book. It’s bookseller-speak for “this book has little else going for it,” the literary equivalent of a good personality. Same goes for “I’ve heard good things,” “People really like it,” and “It’s been popular with book clubs.” At least, these were my code words for mediocre books during my 10 years as a bookseller.
On the rare occasion that literary fiction is deeply moving and hysterically funny (Skippy Dies), I find myself leaving the funny part out of my description, or saving it for last, once I have convinced someone of the book’s extreme literary merit. “It’s also really funny,” I say, hastening to add, “but mostly it’s just really moving and wise.”
Of course, in the case of non-fiction, “it’s really funny” is high praise, a sure way to sell a book. Such are the vagaries of bookselling.
What I’m saying is that when I got a copy of Where’d You Go, Bernadette I set it aside. Funny books are not for me, you see, because I’ve read War and Peace three times, and the publicity for Bernadette is adamant about how funny it is. Its author, Maria Semple, has written for Arrested Development and Mad About You, and this is her second book. I turn to TV and movies for comedy and romance and reserve my reading for deep sad people like Per Petterson.
I eventually did pick up Bernadette because a few trusted reviewers had told me it had its merits and because I was tired of reading about young British men losing their virginity between the wars, which is another story. Lo and behold, Where’d You Go, Bernadette is really, really funny, and not in the usual way that suggests the author is trying to be funny to cover up their deficiencies in plot or styling. As it turns out, Maria Semple is both a good writer and a funny writer, but she prefers to be the latter.
It may be those TV instincts — which, for better or worse, I was endlessly picking out in her work — but given the choice Semple will almost always make a scene ridiculous. The book as a whole is, intentionally, a farce.
Elgin Branch and his wife Bernadette Fox live in Seattle with their fifteen-year-old daughter, Bee. Elgin heads up a classified robotics division at Microsoft. Bernadette is a once-famous and revolutionary architect who hasn’t worked in years, and is going a little nuts. Bee is an ideal child. Over the course of three months, their lives fall apart, and the story is told through a collection of documents, mostly emails, between the characters.
The main problem is that Bernadette hates Seattle. She hates the parking meters, she hates the rain, she really hates the other moms. This has made her unbalanced, and she unburdens herself in long emails to a virtual assistant in India. Lucky for us, the moms hate her back. The email correspondence between two of the moms at Bee’s school (one of whom is their next-door neighbor, one of whom is Elgin’s secretary) are the treasures of the book. These two ladies are so awash in pop psychology, upper-class entitlement, and defensive parenting as to result in a combination of self-awareness and self-delusion that is at once unbelievable and immediately recognizable. Consider:
Today at Whole Foods, a woman I didn’t even recognize recognized me and said she was looking forward to my brunch. Judging from the contents of her shopping cart — imported cheese, organic raspberries, fruit wash spray — she is the exact quality of parent we need at Galer Street. I saw her in the parking lot. She was driving a Lexus. Not a Mercedes, but close enough!
Via their emails, school memos, Bernadette’s exchanges with her virtual assistant, police reports, ER bills, and interjections by Bee, we are told a story of rumor, miscommunication, and distrust that pushes Bernadette to skip town. All this manic action is well-plotted and masterfully satirical, which is obviously Semple’s TV-trained forte. She’s never not playing to her strengths, introducing absurdist comedy into the most somber of situations. There are times when she’s having such fun making fun of the secondary characters that the primary characters get ignored. It’s hard to believe that absolutely everyone the Branch-Fox family comes into contact with is that kooky, but then this isn’t a believable story, it’s a comedy.
After Bernadette disappears and Elgin and Bee are left to uncover her whereabouts, the secondary characters and their wacky emails all fade away and the story becomes, in the end, about the family. It may seem too late if you were hoping for an earnest family story all along, but if you’re willing to enjoy it as a parody of first-world life then you’ll like this book. It’s really funny.