Sunday, December 10, 2017

Black Water Rising by Attica Locke

A Houston lawyer barely making ends meet accidentally gets involved in a murder case which is a lot more complicated than it looks

Jay Porter has a pregnant wife and struggling law practice in the booming oil town of Houston, Texas. He’s a former radical who’s joined the system and married the good girl daughter of a minister. His plan to treat his wife on their anniversary with a homemade budget river cruise goes awry when gunshots are fired from the bank and Jay jumps into the water to rescue a young white woman. He wants to forget that night, but can’t help trying to figure out the truth, especially after the boat captain disappears and Jay begins to be followed. His determination to solve the mystery reaches all the way to the top of Houston’s oil dependent society and the Mayor herself, Jay’s former lover.

I was instantly sucked into the story and Jay’s dilemma between doing the right thing and staying out of sight and making some money. The writing is “literary,” thought the somewhat unwieldy plot is not. The problem was fitting in all the different plots – the dockworkers’ strike, Jay’s wife’s pregnancy, the shooting on the river bank and then the grand scam being perpetuated by the oil companies. The book lost forward momentum and I started getting antsy and had to grit my way through to the end.

This is an old fashioned story that is pretty by the numbers. The unique and valuable thing about this novel is the black perspective. I liked the way the reader learned things about Houston and the longshoreman’s union and police brutality. The fear of being stopped by the police for a traffic infraction is effectively painted. Each one of the plots is also quietly political.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Fourth Of July Creek by Smith Henderson

A social worker deals with the problems of his clients as well as serious problems of his own

Pete Snow, a Montana social worker who had requested to work in a remote part of the state, has a few clients he is observing. Though perhaps Pete should be keeping an eye on his own daughter. The novel is composed of vignettes alternating among Pete's colorful clients, his troubled relationship between his cheating ex-wife and his teen runaway daughter, and Pete’s relationship with a Posse Comitatus mountain man, Jeremiah Pearl, and Pearl’s dutiful son. In addition, Pete has a problem with drinking and falls into a liaison with a coworker with a screwed up past.

The novel provides a glimpse into Montana society, however, the plot, I think, proved to be too ambitious and the reader lumbers through this complicated story. Pete is an amateur detective chasing Jeremiah Pearl and interviewing everyone who ever encountered Pearl. The parts where he goes around talking to Montanans is interesting, however, in general the prose felt bloated and everything is overdescribed. I never understood why Pete is so interested in Jeremiah Pearl to the point of taking miles long hikes through knee deep snow. In general, the exposition is clumsy, and also there are some implausible happenings. Like, is it really that easy for drunks to pick up women?

Women are definitely the other here and there’s more than a faint whiff of misogyny especially when Pete interacts with his wife, girlfriend or daughter. Women are more body than soul, cruel creatures without a lick of loyalty. Every woman sexually betrays him. The ending left me cold probably because I ended up disliking deluded Pete Snow.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward

A memoir structured around the violent deaths of five young African American men

Jesmyn Ward grew up in DeLisle, Mississippi, a coastal town whose racially segregated people and culture remain deeply damaged by the legacy of slavery. Each of the book's five parts is dedicated to  one of her young male friends and relatives. All of the young men died in violent careless ways, including, most painfully, her nineteen year old younger brother. They died young and society did really not care. Men We Reaped also chronicles Ward’s life: her growing understanding of her charming dad’s lack of dependability which fuels the no nonsense strictness of her mother, a domestic worker supporting four young kids. Thanks to her mother, Ward is offered a scholarship to a private school which leads to a gold plated ticket out of DeLisle: Stanford and the University of Michigan. Far from Mississippi, she can’t, however, shake her homesickness.

I read this book practically in one sitting. Ward is a master of establishing tension. The young men, their love of life and partying, are deftly portrayed. She relates their risky and not so great decisions as well as describes the oppression of small town Mississippi: early neglect in substandard schools, the overpolicing of the black population and the disappearance of manufacturing jobs. These uneducated young men cannot have a single misstep. Otherwise they will pay a life altering price. Sadness permeates this book.

As her first class education takes her further from DeLisle, Ward can’t help but lead a double life. I felt panicky after she returned to Mississippi from Stanford and couldn’t even get a job at the local Barnes and Noble. This book achieves two things: A portrait of the artist as a young woman, and a spotlight shining upon unacceptable conditions existing in America today.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Nobody Is Ever Missing by Catherine Lacey

A young woman goes across the world to go quietly mad

Elyria’s adopted sister jumped off a building. Her mother is an egomaniacal horror. In the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, Elyria encounters her sister’s shell shocked professor, a young man whose mother also jumped off a building. The professor and Elyria get married but things don’t go well. Elyria starts to hate him and one day, leaves Manhattan and her great job and travels to New Zealand based upon a casual invitation from a visiting writer. After her husband cancels her credit cards, Elyria must rely on the kindness of strangers. And strangers, though kind, are basically uninterested, as the young woman enters more and more into an alienated state.

The plot wasn’t the point of this novel – it was the superb writing and the meticulous creation of a completely mad claustrophobic world. Little by little Elyria acts outside the boundaries, at first the reader thinks she is just taking a trip, but it is not very long before Elyria acts completely nuts. The New Zealanders start to treat her like she nuts, but Elyria refuses to deviate from her plan. She takes the reader along for the crazy ride. Perhaps her conflict is between the desire to be a supportive wife, sister and mother versus an asshole who needs to find out something about herself. The people in New Zealand react very reasonably to her extreme passivity.

The sadness, which is partly a result of the perfectly modulated voice, is also a function of the reality that no one really misses Elyria. Her husband is dumbfounded that she left and humiliated him. He’s not concerned about her in the slightest. A very unique novel.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Made for Love by Alissa Nutting

A woman tries to escape from her high tech husband

Hazel, an ordinary woman married to Byron, a high tech billionaire, Sergey Brin/Mark Zuckerberg type, flees her stifling marriage and escapes to her father’s house. Her father is not that thrilled to see her having recently purchased a perfectly lifelike sex doll and is eager for hours of privacy. Too late Hazel discovers Byron had a chip implanted in her brain, so that at noon each day all her memories and desires are transmitted to his lair. The situation seems hopeless until young Jasper, a Jesus resembling con man who cheats lovesick women out of their life savings, and is also addicted to dolphin sex, is dispatched to save her.

I loved the prose – so sprightly and off kilter. Also I appreciated the observations about modern day America. However, there seems to be a problem with the plotting. The energy appreciably picks up the moment Jasper and his dolphin initiation/obsession subplot is introduced. The book might run aground on the primary plot which is: why would a billionaire be attracted to Hazel: Miss Ordinary or even perhaps Ms. Mediocre? Why would he marry her, and then, when she ran off, why would he pursue her? The story’s meaning and the Hazel plot remained at the level of entertaining confection, rather than a journey of illumination, where the two plots build on each other. It’s almost like there are three separate short stories or tales of “Made for Love”: Hazel and her technocratic husband; her father and his two sex dolls (their eventual end is hilarious) and Jasper and his eventual chemical/surgical creation of a heart/conscience.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Animal Farm by George Orwell

A fable about human nature

Farmer Jones, a drunk, get too careless with the security apparatus of the farm, and the animals, motivated by a new philosophy formulated by a revered old hog, eject him to run the farm himself. Their sacred hymn is “Beasts of England.” Free of the farmer’s tyranny, yet beset by enemies on all sides, the animals at first work together in harmony. However, little by little, a certain class of animals (pigs) betrays the revolution’s ideals and soon end up as bad as the human farmers. The animals are once again exploited, and what is even worse, betrayed.

This was a short novel, very direct and, to my mind, spoke to human corruption. I’m not sure if socialism, when compared to other ways of organizing society, is more susceptible to lying and greed. Part of the dramatic tension came from the animals slowly discovering that they had been conned – their deepest ideals had been violated. The sheep, however, never seemed to figure that out, but were happy repeating whatever stupid things the pigs told them. The most interesting part of this was the corruption of the language and memory in such a brief time period in order to support the ascendancy of the pigs. What is recently agreed to be the truth is not good for Animal Farm.

This probably was a very effective piece of political fiction. So there were aesthetic aims, and they were also political aims.

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.