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.







Sunday, June 11, 2017

Bough Down by Karen Green


The aftermath of a suicide

In exquisitely written paragraphs surrounded by white space and supplemented by haunting collages, a wife recounts in bits and pieces the story of her emotional recovery from the shocking assault of her beloved husband’s suicide. So many of the paragraphs are flat out funny, blackly humorous. Practical problems like dogs and dental issues circle the wife’s often times overwhelming feeling that maybe she should die as well. Surprisingly and wonderfully, part of the book is also about the wife missing her sexual partner. At the end the wife seems to come, or must come, to an understanding of the perishability of all things.

I loved this deeply moving and entertaining book. The writing is not, “not bad for a visual artist”, but truly superior. One of the best aspects is how many other characters are tellingly portrayed, even as the main character is in an understandable state of shock.  As I think about it, this writing is the exact opposite of David Foster Wallace’s writing. The compression, the truth in the lyricism valued almost above all else. The glancing insights require that the book be read at least twice to appreciate the structure..



Sunday, June 4, 2017

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao


Scarred by a nightmarish dictatorship, Dominican immigrants try to adapt to a cold society

Oscar, the nerdy chubby son of a Dominican immigrant family, gets his entire family, tragic mother, adopted grandma, hot sister and best friend Junior involved, when he falls in love/lust with a Dominican policeman’s sexy girlfriend. This story is interspersed with the escape story of Oscar’s mother and the love story between Junior and the hot sister. All the parts add up to a mosaic of the evil Trujillo years.

I was really disappointed. Junot Diaz’s strength is his voice, and the voice here was flat. At the beginning the voice even felt strained, explaining everything in Oscar’s world with unneeded juvenile footnotes. Also I don’t believe this was a novel. A novel is not just beautiful language, a novel must have a structure, preferably beautiful, and Oscar Wao lacked any semblance of structure. The layout was Chapter One, Chapter One, Chapter One, Chapter One, and then the book ended. This wasn’t even one of these novel-in-stories deal.

Part of the problem is I didn’t care about the characters, and I felt I should have, especially for Belicia, Oscar’s tragic mother. But I had to wade through  lots of paragraphs describing her tits. I felt the book was attempting to be an emotional history of the Trujillo years and how the festering corruption infects an entire society. The entire thing was stunted.