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.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

The Trojan Women by Euripides translated by Nicholas Rudall

What war really means

After ten years of siege, the Trojans are defeated by the Greek invaders. Therefore all the men are killed and the women and children enslaved, about to be scattered to many kingdoms. Hecuba, Queen of Troy, her daughter-in-law Andromache, her daughter Kassandra and her grandson Astyanax all must suffer grievously. Who is to blame for this suffering? Hecuba says Helen of Troy, the cause of the Greek invasion. A trial commences and it seems Helen is condemned. Or is she? That plot, sketchy as it is, must bear the emotional weight of the severe suffering endured by the defenseless defeated women.

Euripides is a courageous artist. This play is an indictment of Greek society, an indictment of the Greek’s foundational myth of the Trojan war, and an indictment of essential human nature. Our society lacks the platform and maybe even the courage to do create confrontational piece of art that is supported by the establishment. Although apparently this play came in last in the competition. It must have outraged many people.

It was difficult at times to read this – the dead baby on the shield at the end.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh

A young woman is trapped in a suffocating life

In 1964, shy awkward Eileen, twenty-four years old, lives in a small Massachusetts town with her drunken widower father and works in the office at the boys’ prison. She hates her life and dreams ineffectively about moving to New York. She nurses a crush on a handsome prison guard and hides her father’s shoes in the trunk of her car so he won’t terrorize the neighborhood with his revolver. Then one day, near Christmas, a new employee arrives at prison – a beautiful young teacher. The teacher has a scheme and entices Eileen to join in.

It’s almost as if Moshfegh came up with the oddball characters and dismal setting and then deliberately inserted a preposterous plot, almost even flaunting the ridiculousness of the plot. The oddball trapped characters are vividly drawn; they are monumental and snap into focus. The structure of the book is the old woman Eileen looking back. Eileen herself, at least in the past, spends a lot of time pondering disgusting things. All the lyrical descriptions of taking a shit are gross and funny, although after a while, I was asking myself, is that all this book is, very lyrical writing about taking a shit? Moshfegh has a dim view of human nature.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Medea by Euripides translated by Robin Robertson

Medea will not accept being abandoned

Jason, a noble Greek, and Medea, a barbarian sorceress, have had many adventures and two sons together. Now, Jason, much to Medea’s surprise, plans to marry the king of Corinth’s daughter and prefers that Medea step gratefully aside. Medea, who because of her murderous actions on Jason’s behalf can never return to her home, will have none of it, and achieves a savage revenge on everyone who would have cast her aside.

Euripides is my favorite Greek playwright so far, not interested in playing nice or in cosseting the audience. The play is cleanly plotted, its detonations are perfectly timed. There are many hints of what Medea will do well before she does it. The theme is the sometimes deadly unpredictability of women, and the untrustworthiness of the barbarians. And yet, the viewer, I’m sure, is supposed to feel sympathy for Medea. It is so easy to understand why she can’t accept the sound logic of Jason’s argument. The truth rings out clearly throughout the centuries. The final image of Phoebus' carriage takes the play into another realm all together.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler

A waitress has her first taste of adulthood

Tess, a recent college graduate, flees an unhappy family life and comes to New York City. She finds an apartment in Brooklyn, and based on her personality, not her experience, gets a highly sought after job as a backwaiter in one of Manhattan’s most exclusive restaurants. Waitressing in this rarified setting is physically and mentally demanding, and at first,Tess can’t cope. Little by little, she learns, with the help of Simone, the cultured server who educates Tess in the finer points of wine and oysters, and Jake, the brooding Heathcliffy bartender, who teaches her about sexual desire. Jake and Simone, however, apparently have a much deeper relationship with each other than either could have or want to have with Tess. Tess is determined to change that.

There’s something compelling about the Bildungsroman. This one reminded me of Love Me Back, another restaurant novel – the na├»ve young heroine and her fine mind getting put through a fast paced thresher, all in pursuit of making a buck and serving up hash. The seduction of the partying, the drug abuse. How the terrifyingly unfamiliar becomes second nature and how a team is forged. Love Me Back was a better constructed novel, however, as it actually told a story. Sweetbitter is the classic case of Vivian Gornick’s the situation not the story. The situation is intriguing – which is why I was sucked in the first hundred pages. But after the heady rush of the beginning I wondered – now what? Now what turned out to be more of the same. The prose is great, although the narrator takes herself and her backwaiting gig a mite seriously at times. I enjoyed the structure, which is that of the four seasons.

The reason why the story spins its wheel is because the three main characters are incompletely realized. Simone, the mentor, speaks in philosophically dense paragraphs that more often come off as silly. Another problem with Simone’s educational monologues is that food, in some aspects, like many fashionable things, is inherently trivial. The ancient Greeks did not hand down recipes. There are too many forgettable characters so the reader’s emotional reactions to their problems are muted. The presumed engine of the plot, the love story between the narrator and laconic Jake, naturally, like all love stories, has low stakes attached to it. Part of the plot is her advancement from back waiter to server – another low stakes mechanism. A reoccurring crisis is that there are never enough bar cloths.