Sunday, November 29, 2009

A Change in Altitude by Anita Shreve

In 1970’s Kenya, a couple slowly realizes they are not suited for each other.

What a disappointment! I really love Anita Shreve’s deeply felt descriptions and characterizations, even though much of the time they are wedded to (overly) sentimental plots. But A Change in Altitude doesn’t feel like a novel – it feels like notes on a novel intended to be written. The whole plot is predicated upon the heroine climbing Mt Kenya where there is no good reason for her to want to climb Mt Kenya. So with no preamble, the characters do things that seem hardly motivated. The descriptions of Africa and the sense of Africa were much more compelling in her previous novel, “The Last Time they Met”. Although, you know what, the end worked for me. A twist.

The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem

A sensitive boy struggles with being different in Brooklyn
This book had scene after vividly written scene, opening with a beautiful image of two girls roller skating. The hero the child of artists, the only white child in the neighborhood. As a result, he is harassed in nearly every scene. The problem is that these scenes don’t build – nothing happens. Over and over our hero keeps getting beat up, stoned or runs around in a Superhero outfit. The prose was excellent, but I stopped reading around page 250. Just didn’t feel like investing the time anymore. The hero of this book, I now think, is the neighborhood. But I prefer people.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

A Recent Martyr by Valerie Martin

A young nun unsettles people in an unfamiliar New Orleans.

I didn’t quite know what was going on in this novel, but I'm not sure if I minded that much.  The key thing here is the mood.  There are three main characters – the aristocratic Pascal, his lover Emma, and Claire, the novice nun who fascinates them. The story is set in New Orleans, but not the real New Orleans – this is a dystopian New Orleans, cut off from the rest of the country, afflicted by plagues, lawlessness, a lack of gasoline and public transport. (Hmm - sound familiar?)  Claire loves Jesus, Emma loves Pascal – actually she love the way he brutalizes her, and Pascal loves Claire. Emma has to leave Pascal because she realizes that her sexual obsession is going to get her killed. Claire is a saint – causing no conflict for her, but does for almost everyone she meets. She changes their lives. The author skillfully creates a mood of decay, of futility. I’m not sure there is any redemption at the end.

Trespass by Valerie Martin

Two mothers – one overmothering, one undermothering, form the core of this novel about intruders. The initial “trespass” starts off small, laughably small and petty. The initial cast of characters is affluent, well educated, smug even, but then the story skillfully takes us outside the borders of this familiar world. The author portrays successive betrayals which grow increasingly deep, inhuman and shocking. I wasn’t crazy about the end, which left me saying “Huh”. However, this novel works on very many levels and I enjoyed it a lot. I highly recommend it and look forward to rereading it.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

The Bungalow by Lynn Freed

An expatriate returns to apartheid South Africa, trying to decide if she should change her life

I really liked this. The narrator is almost completely unsympathetic, but also completely unsentimental and honest. The prose is vivid, without a wasted word. The surprising plot takes the reader competently in hand, with an unobtrusive backdrop the birth of the modern South African state.
But primarily this is a story about a woman who has to decide between her crazed homeland, her crazed family and her deadening life in the United States. There’s no phony or dead spots in this book.

A Fortunate Age by Joanna Smith Rakoff

A Fortunate Age by Joanna Smith Rakoff. A number of female friends who went to Oberlin confront contemporary Manhattan.

Sorry. I couldn’t finish this. I got to page 136 and I went off to live my life. The story of these girls could be absorbing, but they were too many of them, too hard to tell apart, and the stakes were too low. The novel begins with an interminable wedding scene with zero conflict, introducing about a dozen characters. I enjoyed reading individual scenes which were absorbing and tense, although conversations seemed a bit too didactic. The scenes didn’t build in a way that made me want to keep reading. Finally, I enjoyed the prose style. She’s a good writer.