Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Monsters of Templeton, by Lauren Groff

I found this one on the free table in the 5th floor lunchroom at my old job, left over, probably, from somebody's book club. I loved the cover, so I picked it up.

Lauren Groff's debut is a complex and humorous family saga tracing the lineage of one prominent small town family back through seven generations. Stanford PhD candidate Willie Upton returns to her upstate New York roots after a devastating affair with her older married professor. On the day she arrives back in Templeton (a stand-in for the author's own hometown, Cooperstown), the corpse of a prehistoric monster surfaces in Lake Glimmerglass. That might seem like the jumping off point for a whimsical adventurous story about, you know, monsters. But in fact, the dinosaur serves as more of a metaphor--the actual "monsters" are still to come.

The story really begins when Willie's eccentric mother, Vi, tells her a secret--Willie's father is not, as she has always been told, one of several San Francisco hippies from her mother's commune days, but someone from their own community. Vi refuses to tell Willie exactly who her real dad is, but after some nagging she does offer up a clue: Vi herself is related to town founder Marmaduke Temple on both her mother and her father's sides through two different lines of decent, but Willie is descended from him through three lines. Apparently, Willie's father is related to Marmaduke too, through "some sort of liaison at some point in the past."

Armed with this information, Willie sets out to research the family history, locate the missing branch on the family tree, and identify her father. The novel follows Willie's experiences with her mother, her best friend back in San Francisco, and her former high school classmates during her 2-3 week stay in her ancestral home, but the real focus of the work is her research into her family's secretive past. Through letters, diaries, and a few unexplained monologues, we become acquainted with the Temple clan one generation at a time. We meet Marmaduke's slave mistress, Hetty; Sy Upton, who married into the family and brought the baseball museum to town; Jacob Franklin Temple the famous novelist (a cipher for James Fenimore Cooper); his youngest daughter Charlotte, an uptight old maid raising her "nephew"; and many others.

The result is strong, but uneven. Each anecdote is engaging and enjoyable in itself, but the stakes aren't very high for the reader, and it can be a little difficult to keep track of the various characters, how they are related to one another, and which ones are having affairs (there are a lot of affairs in this book).

In a sort of random fling at post-modernism lite, Groff also includes contemporary alternative narrators, including the Running Buds, a group of cheerful middle aged men who jog together everyday and narrate in the first person plural (we), and the monster itself. There isn't a lot of plot to be gleaned from these sections of the novel, and they do add to the overall impression of confusion, but I enjoyed them quite a bit as isolated pieces of writing.

Overall, the novel is a good one, a promising start for a young writer--someone with a lot of creativity, a lot of ideas, a great capacity for detail, but issues around mechanics, pacing and structure still to work out. And, hey, she's already a bestseller.

I'll end with a quick shout out to Guenet Abraham, the designer of this book--the novel is greatly enhanced by Beth White's photos and illustrations of the various ancestors rendered in appropriate historical style, as well as by the several versions of the family tree annotated by Willie and updated periodically as additional information is uncovered. It's a nice touch, quirky, fun and entirely appropriate, and it has the added benefit of helping the reader keep tabs on the various story lines. Rock on!

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Nobody Cares Where You Sit (and other notes on contemporary politics)

I haven't had much to rant about on the political front in sometime, mainly because most of what I feel justified in commenting on has been on hold since the holiday recess began almost a month ago.

Just when congress was gearing up for a serious partisan smack down in the new year (something I would definitely have commented upon), maladjusted weirdo Jared Loughner shot up a Gabrielle Giffords speaking event for, apparently, no reason, killing six and injuring a dozen more. What followed was the oddest combination of genuine shock and grief and blame-slinging and political posturing in recent memory. Everyone made an initial statement, many of them quite honest and moving and heartfelt. Then everyone analyzed everyone else's statement. Reactions were compared and contrasted.

Then the idea that the polarized political situation and negative, violent rhetoric inspired the shooting (just like rock music causes suicide, and Stairway to Heaven includes secret satanic messages) was covered exhaustively. Not to say that the tone in Washington is not a problem, but the sad truth is you can't blame mean people for crazy ones--no matter how much you might want to. Or at least, you can blame them only in so much as their meanness contributes to the general malaise, the poisonous atmosphere that, combined with paranoia and delusion and a thousand other influences, creates both the madness and the motivation for such an act. Still, everyone vowed to play nice in the future. And then promptly turned and criticized someone else for not making the same promise, or for doing it too slowly, or whatever. I don't even want to talk about what Sarah Palin odd little mini controversy, which was beyond bizarre from beginning to end.

The idea that an effort at civility is really a mandate for curtailing free speech was briefly floated. A hilarious concept considering that in the 1700s when the whole free speech thing took hold, the social niceties were so much more extreme that two people exchanged bows before trying to kill one another. The founding fathers it seems, were free to say and do just about anything without breaking the bounds of decorum. And, with our lax social standards, I don't think it's going out on a limb to say so are we. It's entirely possible to refute everything your opponent stands for without being aggressive and violent, sometimes without even being impolite.

In the midst of the back biting and general scramble to either avoid or acknowledge culpability as circumstances seemed to warrant, a few individuals stood up and stood out in an admirable way. The president broke out his not inconsiderable rhetorical skills at the memorial service Wednesday. The old John McCain, the McCain we loved for his compassion and his faithfulness and his ability to step outside his own perspective (even if he is a homophobic old coot), reemerged unexpectedly with Sunday's Washington Post op-ed. Ms. Giffords staff opened the offices as usual on the Monday following the shooting.

So it's been 10 days, and congress has decided it's now appropriate to get back down to business--possibly a kinder, gentler business. So, the "job-killing health care bill" is now the "job-destroying health care bill," (much less violent that way, right?) and we're all going to sit side by side at the State of the Union (because this is 8th grade and it matters who we sit by). And now it's time to see how it all goes forward.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Quiet Lightening

Frozen solid and sneezing continuously, with a bad mood and a raw nose, I never the less pulled on my new jacket (thanks Bestamor) and headed down to the nexus of SOMA and the Mission for Quiet Lightening, possibly my favorite San Francisco reading series. LDM is funny; Radar is striking and weird; Porchlight has that sweet, homey public radio feel (although it's so freakin' hard to get out to the Verdi Club I hardly ever make it); Writers with Drinks is hit and miss.

Quiet Lightening is pretty close to perfect. It's immersive, it's chill. It's always somewhere new, always somewhere central, always somewhere with drinks, and they keep the pageantry to a minimum. Writers read one after the other in rapid succession, without pausing for introductions or explanations. The length of the applause is just long enough for the next reader to get to the front of the room.

Sure, there are some selections I could miss (not naming any names here, but if you were thinking of bringing an accompanist, please reconsider), but the rate of really good readings is remarkable--in every two hour event, there are always 3-4 writers who are honestly great.

The first night I attended, I was completely in love with readings by Charles Kruger and Lauren Becker. Last night's videos have not been posted, but I was definitely impressed with Jesus Castillo (and that's saying something--I don't care for most contemporary poetry), adorable David Sedaris Jr., Graham Gremore, and pun-happy Steven Grey.