Thursday, September 25, 2008

Time Is a River: Tell Me Something I Need To Know

Pocket Books

July 2008

Provided free from Amazon Vine
Here I was expecting a poignant and insightful novel about breast cancer survival, and what I found was formulaic women's fiction where the protagonist just happened to be recovering from breast cancer. I have real problems with so-called women's fiction on two levels. First, I'm tired of fiction written by women for women, where the protagonist is jolted into a journey of self-awareness by the loutish behavior of one guy with the end-prize turning out to be––what else?––the love of another guy. Oh, there's plenty of bantering among the "sisterhood" in between, but the love of a man is, obviously, the only real reward in life. Second, it shows the ultimate disrespect for women readers to assume we will ignore stock characters and poorly developed plot lines just for a "happy" ending. Though, since this stuff obviously sells, I guess it's true––for some women at least, but not for me.

In Mary Alice Monroe's novel, it takes protagonist, Mia, exactly the length of one summer––during which she is divorcing her first husband whom she found with another woman so soon after her cancer treatments that her hair has barely grown back––to fall into the arms of yet another man. And we wonder why divorce rates are so high. Yes, I'm sure that body image and sexual desirabilty can be a major issue for breast cancer survivors, and I can understand throwing in a sexual encounter, but was that really the best time to begin a long-term relationship? Shouldn't one of her women friends bring this to her attention instead of acting like giggly school girls?

For me this novel represented a wealth of missed opportunities. Part of the strain on Mia's marriage was the strain her illness put on their finances. Were they among the 14 million Americans without healthcare coverage? Or was she one of those who pay a fortune for paultry individual plans with high deductables? When she receives payment for her half of their condo, we learn she had been down to her last $200, but we never felt the tension of this woman, still reeling from her illness, trying to get by on such little income. And what about thoughts on her mortality? Her profound loneliness lasts about two days. Next thing you know, she's got the cabin cleaned up, has a bunch of friends, and is just happy as a clam.

And then there's that mouse issue I mentioned on zine writer.

To some these issues may sound picky, but if women truly believe there is value in writing specifically for other women (other than the obvious monetary one), then they should try writing books that tell what it's really like. Sure, the woman can triumph over adversity in the end, but that should be real adversity, not simply what women's fiction writers obviously consider the worst of all states––living without a man.

Snow White was a fairy tale ladies. It's time to grow up.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Guernica: This Is Not For Whom the Bell Tolls


Provided free from Amazon Vine
Most readers today, if they know it at all, would associate Guernica with the painting by Pablo Picasso and not the bombings of the Basque town that inspired him and became a metaphor for the worst horrors of war. I, on the other hand, was fascinated by the Spanish Civil War back in high school (nearly 40 years ago), prompted not a little by my grandfather, the immigrant activist who had supported the Loyalists, even though too old at the time to volunteer to fight for them. So when I saw this title I jumped at it.

An author writing about the Spanish Civil War in the 21st century faces three major challenges. One is the inevitable comparisons to Ernest Hemingway's, For Whom the Bell Tolls, the great American novel about the era. Another is a lack of the historical knowledge necessary to make the story resonate. Third is that the history of the various factions who made up the Loyalists on the one side and the Fascists on the other is difficult enough to explain in a history book let alone a novel. Unfortunately, while not bad, Guernica manages to come up short in these three areas.

Dave Boling made a conscious decision, as noted in his "Author's Notes," to not explain the history at all. This makes for a strange novel, indeed, even for me who had a general idea what was going on. One minute all seems well in the Basque country, with only one character showing any concerns for the growing strength of the Fascist rebels; the next minute brothers Dodo and Miguel Navarro are accosted by the Guardia Civile and forced into exile. For most of the novel, the people of Guernica happily go about their lives, then, suddenly, we learn that food is scarce and they are nearly starving, with no real explanation of what was happening around them to make this occur. Guernica also fills with soldiers and refugees. From where and why? If the lack of background made little sense to me, I can imagine what it would be like for readers with no knowledge at all of the times.

The high point of the novel is Boling's description of the bombings of this civilian population with no warning–-a precursor to the ubiquitous civilian bombings of WWII. The horror is almost as palpable as in the Picasso painting and I found myself unable to put the book aside at that point, wondering which of the characters would survive and which would not. But the grief and pain recede too quickly to feel realistic.

Strangely, in an odd disconnect to the theme, this is more of a "happy" story with everyone in Guernica singing and dancing and eating right up the the holocaust, followed by a quick recovery, even by those who lost most of their loved ones. Given that Basques separatists remain a force in Spain even today, long after the death of Franco and Fascism, it seems odd that the author would portray the wounds as healing so quickly. Yet, in the end, everything is tied up neatly, in an almost Dickensian style.

Needless to say, this is no For Whom the Bell Tolls, though it has its moments. All in all, it lacked the depth to make me care, no matter how much I tried.