Review: Sisterland by Curtis Sittenfeld

16099180Blurb:

From an early age, Kate and her identical twin sister, Violet, knew that they were unlike everyone else. Kate and Vi were born with peculiar “senses”—innate psychic abilities concerning future events and other people’s secrets. Though Vi embraced her visions, Kate did her best to hide them.

Now, years later, their different paths have led them both back to their hometown of St. Louis. Vi has pursued an eccentric career as a psychic medium, while Kate, a devoted wife and mother, has settled down in the suburbs to raise her two young children. But when a minor earthquake hits in the middle of the night, the normal life Kate has always wished for begins to shift. After Vi goes on television to share a premonition that another, more devastating earthquake will soon hit the St. Louis area, Kate is mortified. Equally troubling, however, is her fear that Vi may be right. As the date of the predicted earthquake quickly approaches, Kate is forced to reconcile her fraught relationship with her sister and to face truths about herself she’s long tried to deny.

Funny, haunting, and thought-provoking, Sisterland is a beautifully written novel of the obligation we have toward others, and the responsibility we take for ourselves. With her deep empathy, keen wisdom, and unerring talent for finding the extraordinary moments in our everyday lives, Curtis Sittenfeld is one of the most exceptional voices in literary fiction today.

Review:

It was with trepidation that I started Sisterland, the sole remaining unread Curtis Sittenfeld novel in my repertoire. The blurb promised identical twin sisters gifted in ESP, one of whom predicts a catastrophic earthquake in St. Louis, a scientifically and thus narratively improbable event that nevertheless serves as the story’s catalyst. For those unfamiliar with her work, Sittenfeld plays with extreme hyperrealism, observations so mundane that many readers deem her “boring” or statements so starkly true that readers find it “uncomfortable.” Sisterlandtherefore seemed like a wild gamble, the mysticism of the psychic main characters incompatible with her mechanical truthiness.

I was wrong. Sisterland is just as honest as her previous work, even as the ridiculous omen of the upcoming earthquake looms over the text. Here Sittenfeld dissects family relationships. She does so calmly, slowly, with lots of anesthetic. The result being an acutely painful awakening at the novel’s end when all the careful sutures she’s sewn come undone.

I adore when a writer challenges herself by creating a narrative obstacle that she can’t simply detour around or abracadabra away: she must go straight through it, even if us dullheaded readers can’t possibly see how she can. The earthquake, which has the possibility to fail entirely (if it happens, she’s supporting the existence of ESP in an otherwise realistic novel; if it doesn’t, she’s essentially inflated a massive balloon of anticipation for the readers and popped it with no ado) is wonderfully resolved—in a way that’s completely surprising but also makes you go “Why didn’t I think of that?”

Kate, the harried mother protagonist who has turned away from psychicness, is believable and sympathetic in her mistakes. She’s another one of those Sittenfeld characters that reminds us that people are messy and complex, and that it’s not easy to live sometimes but it’s so lovely to. The story alternates chapters: one in the past, one in the present leading up to the earthquake. This retrospective narration is particularly inspired in a story obsessed with seeing the future. By the end of the novel, we see that hindsight, not foresight, guides us onward. While we can hope for a future, we can know only the past.

4 out of 5 stars

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Review: Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

 

2619Blurb:

Dickens’s magnificent novel of guilt, desire, and redemption
The orphan Pip’s terrifying encounter with an escaped convict on the Kent marshes, and his mysterious summons to the house of Miss Havisham and her cold, beautiful ward Estella, form the prelude to his “great expectations.” How Pip comes into a fortune, what he does with it, and what he discovers through his secret benefactor are the ingredients of his struggle for moral redemption.

Review:

In Great Expectations Dickens takes Pip, a young orphan of modest means, from a marshy graveyard to London high society, twisting his fate again and again to ask the question: who makes a man—himself? Or everything and everyone who builds him up? Is the importance of living a good and true life only discovered in the highs and lows? Can great expectations be given or must they be earned?

The actual plot, while frequently entertaining with its sharp turns and interlocking character backstories, is too fantastic to properly address these questions. Pip’s journey is long but the significant bits, places where he learns the value of money, the visage of true love, the treasure of friendship, and the loyalty of familial love, are short and subsequently seemingly unearned.

The characters, fortunately, are sharp and bright as stars on a clear night. We have the youthful tragics of Miss Havisham that have left her cold and frozen, icing the heart of her beautiful ward Estella, and eventually that of Pip’s as well. Joe, sweet Joe the blacksmith, whose accent was practically unreadable at times but never failed to shine as a beacon of humanity. And of course, the unforgettable Wemmick, a law clerk who has built a castle in London for himself and “the Aged,” his death father whom he communicates with either by cries and cannonball firings.

It’s a good story but one that failed to seam together for me. Reminiscent of Maugham’sOf Human Bondage and plenty of other bildungsromans, yet heavier on plot and lighter on epiphanies gained through growing-up.

3 out of 5 stars

Review: Wind, Sand, and Stars by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

21859192Blurb:

Recipient of the Grand Prix of the Academie Francaise, Wind, Sand and Stars is unsurprassed in capturing the grandeur, danger, and isolation of flight. Its exciting account of air adventure – through the treacherous passes of the Pyrenees, above the Sahara, along the snowy ramparts of the Andes – combined with lyrical prose and the soaring spirit of a philosopher, make this book one of the most popular works ever written about flying.

Review:

The steadily growing stream of birth and marriage announcements on my Facebook feed has led me to rethink these “steps” that most people take each passing year. I used to think (and still sometimes do when I’m feeling unsure or cynical) that this seemingly prewritten way of living, of societal norms pushing us forward, was depressing evidence for a lack of creativity. But lately I see these steps not as predetermined chains on a pair of manacles we never knew we were wearing, but as a climb up a mountain or a neverending game of “I dare you.” I dare you to try more, to do something different, to remember or to learn how best to live.

We only have one first. A first time riding in a plane, a first time seeing the ocean, a first time eating an orange, a first time falling in love. It happens and it finishes in the same moment. A simultaneous life and death that will slowly kill us if we don’t realize it.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry wants us to realize it. To do so he shares exquisite moments where he realized it during his career as an Aéropostale pilot in Northern Africa and South America. He’s lying atop a pebbled ledge in the Sahara Desert and finds a meteorite and knows he’s the only soul who has ever seen this rock. It’s a first, but one that he wants us to savor. He’s in the desert in Libya, three days without water, and he sees fantastic mirages—they are false, but they are something new only once, and he wants us to appreciate that.

What he wants is neither that new nor that radical. By recounting his memories he wants to inspire us to unlock our hands from our keyboards, to put our wallets back in our pockets, to unleash the shopkeepers from their shops, to look in a mirror, to look at each other, and to recognize something.

In English this humanist adventure tale is titled Wind, Sand, and Stars, evocative but lacking. The French title, Terre des hommes, or Land of Men, is better. There is no wind, there is no sand, there are no stars, if we are not there to observe them, or even more, to appreciate them. Life is a battle to stay awake. And according to Saint-Exupéry, it doesn’t have to be much of a battle if we just look around every once and a while. Whether we’re flying across the Andes in a snowstorm straining to find the light of a house and human soul below or whether we simply open our eyes while walking down the street, we can win the battle. Being awake will no longer mean adhering to a game of “I dare you,” a set of steps leading to more, more, more to stop us from getting bored. Everyday can have a first, every person can be awake, if we remember every single moment that we’re alive on this sphere in the universe.

5 stars out of 5