Sunday, September 10, 2017

Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

Life and a trip to the lighthouse

A beautifully written meditation divided into three parts. The first part concerns the hustle and bustle of mother-of-eight Mrs. Dalloway’s life one summer day as she tries to ensure her many guests have a wonderful visit at the Dalloways’ beach house. A matchmaker, she wants everyone to end up as fecund and satisfied as herself, though some tough nuts are visiting, among them Lily Briscoe, artist and spinster and a bit proud of being both. That summer’s day Lily is puzzling out the composition of a painting, and ignoring the match making pressures of her hostess. The second part is that same summer house in a sad decade later. The third and final section is the long awaited trip to the lighthouse, across the many miles of sea in a sailboat.

Wow, I really loved this. A beautifully conceived and executed work of art. There’s kind of a “gimmick” that happens in the middle that still works well. The omniscient third person point of view is full of insight and the long sentences feel very often like poetry. The repetition and echoes of the scimitar metaphor is particularly effective. Also the fruit tree. But why is Mrs. Dalloway always opening the windows?

Another subject is the relationship of men and women. Women, maybe according to Mrs. Dalloway, must be the admirer of men, the inspiration. Lily Briscoe, however, can envision a life for herself that does not require men. I loved the way the relationship between Mr. and Mrs. Dalloway is portrayed – their silences, and their shifting relationship. They need each other. Who is in charge? When Mr. Dalloway says “Damn you,” to Mrs. Dalloway it comes across, even in this day and age, as shocking.

Mrs. Dalloway has eight children – this is presented as a sign of her happy life. In part three, we learn that at least the two youngest despise their gruff father. However, in many ways, this is a book where a lot of loving attention is devoted to the characters and also to the characters’ world. Part of what this novel is about is close observation. The final scene in the novel is mediated by Lily Briscoe, through an artist’s sensibilities. I didn’t realize till after I had finished that it is autobiographical. It’s a ghost story, and parts, indeed, are very spooky.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

All Things All at Once by Lee K Abbott

An ordinary Joe from New Mexico reflects upon life in these United States, women, and a few supernatural happenings

These stories are full of life and typically start in bravado fashion, opening with an extremely long and complex sentence. The rest of the paragraphs are mix of high falutin vocabulary and the vernacular. The most striking thing is that in this collection of 23 stories, every single narrator or narrative consciousness turns out to be a middle aged white guy from New Mexico who likes golf. This whole book is like a flashback from the Sixties. Not that there’s anything wrong with that narrative consciousness. But even in 1969, twenty three times in a row? There’s a lot of disappointed first wives in here, and good natured good timey gals. The themes are musty.

The Vietnam stories were good, especially “Love is the Crooked Thing” about a Vietnam war widow and the aforementioned New Mexico golf guy. Great descriptions are studded throughout, especially in those long sentences that typically open each story. I also liked the Columbine story –“One of Star Wars, One of Doom” maybe it was because it was not about a New Mexican golfer (although he of course was the narrative consciousness) but rather tried to create the life of a high school and come up with some idea of a motive for the massacre. Many of the stories have a UFO subtext, the mystery of a why a perfectly happy person, in a privileged position in their New Mexico golfing milieu, would risk it all with a tale of madness?

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Sisterland by Curtis Sittenfeld

Twins with ESP feel an earthquake coming in St Louis.

Daisy and Violet, identical twins, grew up in a house filled with sadness. Their parents didn’t seem to get along. Both girls "sense" premonitions of things that might happen. Violet runs with her special ability, while, Daisy, sick of the more unstable, less conforming Violet, pushes it away. Daisy changes her name to Kate and manages to minimize Violet’s role in her life. She marries a kind man and they have two lovely children. Kate becomes a stay-at-home mom. Then one day Violet gets a premonition that St. Louis will have a major earthquake, and unwillingly, so does Kate.

Almost immediately this book rubbed me the wrong way, though I was reading on the plane and stuck with it and grew to admire the plotting. The cutesy dialogue at the beginning between the two sisters really grated. I don’t think two sisters would talk like this, or especially if they were psychic. The dialogue felt very expository. Kate, who narrates the story, has the most rounded character. What puts this in the women’s fiction or genre category is the importance of plot at the expense of character. Plot comes out of character, but there weren’t really any characters. The one bit of life for me was when Kate surprisingly confirms Violet’s earthquake prediction with her own.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

The Bakkhai by Euripides

A young king doubts the power of Dionysus

Dionysus was born of a human mother, Semele, but Semele’s royal family rejects this proposition as ridiculous. Therefore, Dionysus shows up in disguise at the court of his young cousin, Pentheus, accompanied by a chorus of his barbarian female worshippers (the Bakkhai). Dionysus is disguised as one of his priests, a very handsome long hair priest who carries the sacred staff, the thyrsus. Before his arrival, however, Dionysus has charmed all the women of Thebes to be his sacred worshippers, and they have fled to the mountains and run around in a frenzy with fawnskins on, killing wild animals with their bare hands. The women include his royal aunts, including Agave, Pentheus’s mother. Young King Pentheus is disgusted by this display of female wildness and he takes Dionysus captive, cuts off his hair, and pens him up. The god then erodes Pentheus’s reason and, rather than sending the army to capture the woman and return them to the city, Pentheus decides to dress as a woman, and climb the tallest pine to spy on their carnal rituals. But his mother, assisted by the other Theban woman, think he is a mountain lion and tear his body to pieces. Agave enters the stage bearing Pentheus’s severed head and is talked back into shocking reason by her grieving father.

The heart of this play is the dialogue between the captured good looking Dionysus and the curious (bicurious?) young King. The erstwhile priest gets this rational controlling young man to dress up like a woman, preen, and sends him off to the mountain to spy on these frenzied women. Once Pentheus gets what he came for, the rest of the play is Dionysus taking his terrible revenge. Don’t ignore the call of the wild, because it will come get you at the end. Part of the question is why does the whole family have to suffer? Dionysus is not merciful.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Orestes by Euripides

Three desperadoes try to get out of a life or death situation

The Furies torment Orestes for killing his mother, even though the murder was committed at Apollo’s command.  Only his sister Electra can comfort him in his sickness.  Orestes pleads with his uncle for help.  His uncle declines – now Orestes and Electra must go before the citizens and argue their case.  Alas, they lose and Orestes and Electra must now kill themselves.  Orestes’s loyal friend Pylades arrives.  The trio concocts a plan to free themselves, which involves killing Helen their aunt, and Hermione their cousin and foster sister.  Luckily Apollo swings overhead from a crane, removes the death sentence and orders everybody to marry each other.

This Greek tragedy felt like a spaghetti western or like Bonnie and Clyde.  Orestes and Electra have no compunction about murder – they are only interested in getting out of their death sentence.  They try to reason with people.  When people will have none of it, they enact their rescue plan.  Orestes is persuasive at the beginning, as he suffers from guilt and madness.  Electra’s devotion to him is touching.  Their solution, however, is too cold blooded (perhaps only for modern readers.)

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Middle Passage by Charles Johnson

An American slaving ship transports an African tribe and their mysterious god

Rutherford Calhoun, the somewhat slick and sticky fingered recently freed slave of a master who tutored him in the finer points of Biblical and Greek scholarship, finds himself in trouble in New Orleans. Torn between marriage to a plain-faced spinster, or certain death at the hands of a crime kingpin, he stows away on board the Republic, a slave ship captained by the evil yet learned dwarf, Ebenezer Falcon. Once in Africa, the ship takes on board the enslaved members of the Allmuseri tribe along with a mysterious large crate. Strange things start to happen on board, storms and mutinies, and Calhoun, a much changed man, returns to the United States.

This was a great idea for a novel, touching upon America’s original sin, and its ramifications. In addition, this book had all the makings of a ripping good adventure yarn. However, the execution was lacking and the book finished in a welter of confusing action. First of all, Rutherford is the dreaded passive narrator. Things happen to him; he hardly lifts a finger to save himself. The book is barely 200 pages, and for most of it the pacing is staid and perhaps even marmoreal, yet I was left at the end with the feeling that I needed more pages to explain what had happened. I especially wanted to know more about the Allmuseri’s god in the hold, in that crate. I got that Calhoun was Ishmael; at the end I was disappointed to realize that Rutherford was supposed to be Odysseus as well.  The weight of all these references crushed the natural arc of the story.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Nice Big American Baby by Judy Budnitz

Surreal stories about America

These fabulist, comic and smart stories are unusually, more often than not, explicitly political rather than implicitly political.  The stories feel very American, suffused with racial unease, border wariness, and dealing with a buffoonish President.  Every story was humorous.  I loved “Visitors”, a 98 percent dialogue story about a young couple and her stubborn, asking for directions averse, parents.  “Saving Face” was surreal and so very good, about a dictatorship and its dictator, and the dictator’s omnipresent face. “Miracle,” like some of the other stories, draws its energy from white affluent American’s racial anxiety.  One of the strengths Budnitz has is a lack of fear.  She really goes there. The stories I didn’t like so much were the ones that felt “expected.”  “Elephant and Boy” seemed a easy – ok got it, clueless white Americans abroad are destructive.  “Immersion” is another thank god for saintly white folks type story.  “Preparedness” is about the world’s stupidest President.  Once you start out there, however, with that moronic President, you don’t have a lot of room to maneuver the plot.  “Motherland” about a war ridden land where all the children come from rape.  Again, moving, but nothing happened that was unexpected.