Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Alias Grace: Final Thoughts

**First, to be fair: Spoilers are fair game today, so if you have not read the book and have any intention of doing so in the near future, you may want to stop reading now, just to be safe.**

As most of you know, this is my second time around with Alias Grace, and I've been surprised at how much I had forgotten in the 8 years since I've read it, as well as how much I must have missed the first time around. For example, I completely forgot that she meets up with and marries Mr. Walsh in the end and that Jerome DuPont was actually Jeremiah. I only vaguely remembered the indication that Grace had a split personality, but then remembered that even then I wondered if Mary Whitney had ever existed at all or if she was just a figment of Grace's imagination - perhaps she saw the headstone in the cemetery one day and all developed from there.

The quilt motif does not disappoint, either. All the sections are cleverly named for quilt patterns, names that reflect the contents of the section. Broken Dishes lays out Grace's early family history; Secret Drawer describes her happy times with Mary Whitney; Snake Fence depicts her dealings with two-faced Nancy and the general foreboding lurking around Kinnear's house. It also wraps up the novel nicely at the end, with pieces of the three women's dresses stitched into Grace's own modified Tree of Paradise - as I suppose we all have to modify our ideas of contentment as life normally fails to live up to - or at least fails to match - our childhood hopes and aspirations.

Simon, of course, turns out to be the foppish philanderer I thought him, though I believe his affection for Grace was genuine, although not strong enough ever to bother explaining his sudden disappearance. And, at least he uses his medical training to help out in the war, having a few noble streaks left in him, and not being all bad, just weak in certain bits of his character. His judgment of MacKenzie was humorous, though I thought the lawyer summed up our wonderment as to Grace's reliability as a narrator quite neatly:
"Lying," says MacKenzie. "A severe term, surely. Has she been lying to you, you ask? Let me put it this way - did Scheherazade lie? Not in her own eyes; indeed, the stories she told ought never to be subjected to the harsh categories of Truth and Falsehood. They belong in another realm altogether. Perhaps Grace Marks has merely been telling you what she needs to tell, in order to accomplish the desired end."
And, though there are many instances when Grace admits to holding back certain facts while relating her story to Simon or others, so as not to offend, or to be misunderstood, she always seems to be letting the reader know that she's doing so. I always found her to be telling the story that she herself believed, as none of us remember every detail exactly as it happened but only what we can recall through the passing of time and viewed through our own limited perceptions. She knows her place, and her predicament, and does as much as she can to make her situation as bearable as possible. As she herself muses:
When you are in the middle of a story it isn't a story at all, but only a confusion; a dark roaring, a blindness, a wreckage of shattered glass and splintered wood; like a house in a whirlwind, or else a boat crushed by the icebergs or swept over the rapids, and all aboard powerless to stop it. It's only afterwards that it becomes anything like a story at all. When you are telling it, to yourself or to someone else.
Did anyone else notice that Grace's grammar suffered when we heard her story through Simon, rather than from her own mind (Chapter 35)? I found that rather interesting. Does she hear herself as better spoken because that's how she perceives herself, or does Simon hear her as less educated because that's how his perceptions color her story? The play on perception in the novel is fascinatingly well-done, from the filling in the gaps in the famous story to the views and opinions of each of the characters - and they all have strong opinions of Grace's innocence or guilt, of her fragility or cunning.

I have to wonder if Jamie Walsh was a figure in the original history, or if he has been added - the afterward in the back of the novel does not mention him. I do like that Atwood gave Grace a happy ending - did others? I felt it was a believable end to a mostly depressing tale. I also found myself constantly hoping events would turn out differently, that Grace would go away with Jeremiah, or not take the position at Mr. Kinnear's, or run away from McDermott when she had that chance.

Alias Grace held up for me on a second read, and I found it very enjoyable to read with others - I hope Brenna and Beth - and Jennifer - and others enjoyed the read as well.

Be sure to check out everyone else's thoughts:

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Slant of Light by Steve Wiegenstein: Impressions

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I finished Slant of Light by Steve Wiegenstein last night, and, I must say, it is one of the most unique storylines I've read in a long time. The characters are realistically strong, compelling, and flawed, and the plot is highly engaging and rich with history, taking place between 1857 and 1862. It also is set not terribly far from St. Louis. Since almost nothing is set around here, this was a refreshing change from the all too common settings of New York or California.

Slant of Light revolves around three main characters, Adam Cabot, an idealistic abolitionist from Boston, Charlotte Carr Turner, an intelligent and steadfast young woman from a military family, and James Turner, Charlotte's husband, a writer and lecturer swept away by the power of his own ideas. James had written a novel about a self-sustaining community founded on the ideals of pure democracy and equality, but he never expected to put his lofty ideas to the test until George Webb,a Missouri landowner inspired by Turner's book, offered up part of his land in the Eastern Missouri Ozarks to start the experimental community for real. So, in August of 1857, James decides (without consulting his new wife) to establish Daybreak among the "hill people," about 100 miles south of St. Louis. He is both apprehensive and optimistic:

…his principle had always been that the idea preceded the action. If he pretended to know what he was doing, and pretended to be unafraid, then soon enough he would figure out what to do, and the fear would go away. He must act as if he had a clear purpose, and soon enough the purpose would emerge.

Everyone involved in the social utopian experiment knew it would be rough going at first, but no one knew quite how rough. The only person experienced at farming was George Webb, the benevolent landowner, and the work is back-breaking and long, the food in short supply, the neighbors less than friendly, and George's whiskey-making son Harper is resentful that half the land he was to inherit has been given away. A guest in the community observes to Adam Cabot:

    "For God's sake, listen to you! I thought you were more intelligent than to fall in with this troop of monkeys. Look at them, working like slaves, and for what? The common good, the community? Don't make me laugh. You're all intoxicated by the great ideas of the great man, and what has it gotten you?"
    "A community of fellow strivers."
    "An island of dreamers in a sea of strife."

Sam Hildebrand, a legendary Missouri bushwhacker, is woven into the story, and proves an intriguing challenge to the community. He is presented as not entirely awful or immoral, but dangerous, and with his own sense of honor and justice. I was also surprised to learn how much the civil war affected this area of the country, as most of what one learns about that awful part of our history focuses on the southeast, but it seems the war crept in everywhere. The weakest part of the story, for me, was the love triangle, but then, romance with more seriousness than levity rarely works for me. I know the characters are constricted by the social norms and morals of the times, which allowed me to digest the saltier bits of it, and it didn't distract me too much for the overarching story and themes. 

The characters themselves are well developed with a perfect mix of lovable and irritating nuances, including many of the secondary characters, and their growth is both subtle and realistic. Charlotte, to me, proved to be the strongest among them, but not in the tired behind-every-strong-man-is-a-stronger-woman way; she was a leader in her own right, and it was lovely to see a woman in that role set in the time period. She realizes later in the novel: 

...she knew that this community was no longer an experiment to her. It was her home, one that she had chosen as surely as she had chosen Turner, and one she would never willingly leave. On the side of the distant mountain she could see the gravestones. They had buried loved ones there. They were no longer just visiting--or playing as Harp had accused them. They were bound to this place now, war or no war.

Overall, I really enjoyed Slant of Light and would highly recommend it to those that enjoy American historical fiction every now and then (and even those that never think to pick it up), and don't mind or even enjoy a bit of a love story thrown in, as well as to those that are looking for an original and engaging story of idealism not quashed by the need to survive, but transformed into something both real and hopeful. I was happy to learn upon finishing that this is the first in a series, and look forward to visiting the characters again in the future. 


Steve Wiegenstein is an academic and a scholar of the Icarians, a French utopian movement, and Slant of Light is his debut novel. Learn more about him, the novel, and the publisher, Blank Slate Press, here.

**I received this book courtesy of the publisher through TLC Book Tours. See what others had to say about the novel here

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood: Early Impressions

As promised, here is the first post for May's informal readalong. Alias Grace is just as good upon reread as it was several years ago. Margaret Atwood remains one of my favorite authors with her knack for capturing characters and setting with easy clarity. I'm not sure how far along everyone is, so, just to remind: no spoilers today! They are fair game at the end of the month, but not yet.

One thing that stands out upon rereading is Dr. Simon Jordan's character. I vaguely remember liking him last time around, but this time it's definitely less so. He seems to be sexist like the rest, as, admittedly, was the cultural norm during the time, though possibly to a lesser degree, or at least, he fancies himself to be more egalitarian and open-minded than many of his peers. Since I still have a good half of the novel to go, I'm trying to reserve full judgment on that one until the end. He resents his mother's meddling into his matrimonial prospects, and notes that "[h]is father was self-made, but his mother was constructed by others, and such edifices are notoriously fragile." But he respects her to some degree, and wishes to appease her in small ways, perhaps because he considers her both fragile and his responsibility, though, he certainly resents feeling responsible for anything or anyone.

Jordan also has a tendency to compare women to animals - has anyone else noticed this? Dora is "a greased pig," "loneliness in a woman is like hunger in a dog," Lydia is a "healthy young animal," and Grace is "a female animal; something fox-like and alert." This would suggest that he considers women lesser than fully human. No such comparisons were made of men, or, none that I've found so far.

Grace herself is presented as quietly strong and intelligent, constantly questioning the conventions of society inwardly, even if not outwardly. She described the hanging of James McDermott and the crowd it drew, noting "There were many women and ladies there; everyone wanted to stare, they wanted to breath death in like a fine perfume, and when I read of it I thought, If this is a lesson to me, what is it I am supposed to be learning?" This speaks to another main theme, "justice" wielded more to appease crowds and the sensationalism of a crime rather than punishments that fit the crime itself. Grace also knows she can come across as simple-minded, but often does this intentionally, not wanting to give away her thoughts, which, after all, are all she has left that they cannot take away.

Quilts and quilting are another big motif, but I feel this one might be best reserved for the wrap-up in a couple weeks. And, of course, justice as relating to guilt or innocence, punishments befitting crimes. The descriptions do renew my desire to learn to quilt - it just seems like such a commitment for a new hobby.

How has everyone else been enjoying the novel? What other themes and nuances have you noticed?

Be sure to check out everyone's posts:  

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

In Which Life Supersedes

You may have noticed the scarcity of posting around here. Well, rest assured, I am still around, albeit in smaller doses. An unexpected promotion (to an entirely different department)  has left me with little free time during which I'm not completely exhausted.

I have many reviews to post, hopefully shortly, including The Poisonwood Bible (Kingsolver), Kitchen (Yoshimoto), The Namesake (Lahiri), and Quiet (Cain). And don't worry, I'm right on track for the Alias Grace readalong!

Happy May!

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