Sunday, December 26, 2010

The Ask, by Sam Lipsyte

Modern America outrages an ineffectual man

I really enjoyed this – every sentence was a work of art. Milo Burke, a juvenile dick or a dickish juvenile, quietly rants about the American way of life. There’s an undercurrent(maybe you could call it an overcurrent) of hilarious rage at the loss of white male privilege.  Milo’s work assignment (the plot, that is) is to coax money out of a very rich potential donor to Mediocre U. But this donor, an old college friend, requires certain other things from Milo.  He meets all sorts of self absorbed characters in his journey across the social strata of New York. The novel is not entirely about feeling superior -- certain aspects of America are quietly indicted – the war that blows young men’s legs and young woman’s heads off, the economic structure which gives the very rich the resources to do whatever they please. My only quibble is that everyone speaks the same and at the end I had to reread pages because I wasn’t sure how it was wrapping up. Still not quite sure, for that matter.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits by Laila Lalami

Four young Moroccans are desperate enough to risk their lives to leave their homeland, their identities

Wow. This book was amazing. Linked short stories about four different Moroccans with zero economic prospects. The unifying element is each of them stepping onto a leaky fishing boat to Spain. We see them before they leave and we see them after the boat trip. Lalami has an unadorned pellucid writing style. She is a master of showing, not telling. The stories are gripping because the stakes are so high for the characters – there are simply no jobs for these people. The economic engine of Morocco is sputtering and huge classes of people – mostly young men, have no jobs. Finally, the decision to emigrate tears irrevocably the bonds between husband and wife, and between a young woman and her happiness. Emigration is damaging, but better than being a parasite, begging your mother for spare change.

Also this book works on two levels – it’s a work of art, and it also teaches the reader about Moroccan culture, how it’s criminally inefficient, how women are repressed, how Islamic piety is resurging, and how people process these contradictions. I really enjoyed this book, though the last story had a core of phoniness and fake dialogue. That was the one with American characters.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Seamstress of Hollywood Boulevard by Erin McGraw

At the turn of the century, a trapped farmgirl abandons her children and bolts to the bright lights of Los Angeles

This novel is about reinventing yourself, one of the classic themes of American literature. Freeing yourself from the horrible past, changing your identity. I completely enjoyed the opening, in which teenager Nell, suffocated by babies and a sod house and a crude drunken teenage husband enacts a detailed escape plan and then bolts! Slowly and carefully, Nell builds a life for herself in LA, as Madame Annelle, a “French” woman. Her ambition for success and security hits a wall as the past catches up with her. The novel fell apart at the end – it started to meander and the motivations became doubtful. Well crafted, but I think I mean that in a pejorative sense. Many characters, all distinctive. The passion is there, but at the end, the passion feels plotted.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood

A story about a woman telling a story about a murder

This historical novel tells the story of Grace Marks who was convicted of the murders of her employer and his lover in 1840's Canada.  Did she do it or not?

I'm not sure if this was my cup of tea. Stabbing, Strangling, Shooting and Dismemberment. These don’t seem like the favorite subjects of the presumed murderess Grace as well, since she can’t remember the murders and would really rather forget. I was bored at times as I felt I had to wade through too much regurgitated research to get to the forward moving part of the story. Sometimes only the beautifully written descriptions kept me plodding on. Grace is just too passive, the typical tongueless Atwood heroine. Or is she a crazy liar? I did like the multiplicity of voices and the structure of the quilt patterns. And I loved the difference between Grace’s thoughts and Grace’s uneducated letters.

The best parts of the book actually, were the parts with lots of blood and the parts that take place in the godforsaken house in the middle of nowhere. The house with all the passions. Women don’t fare well in this novel at the hands of men who expect too much saintliness or too much villainy. The other main character is a Mama’s boy doctor (another passive character actually) who wants to “save” Grace. The tension between the two starts off strong but then gets frittered away somehow. I think part of the problem is that he’s too much of a straw man.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Galveston by Nic Pizzolato

A tough guy tries to protect an innocent

I enjoyed this story – the writing was beautiful and the dialogue economical and evocative. Roy Cady, the inarticulate muscle for a loan shark, gets set up, which kicks off a classic American tale of a guy and a girl on the lam. Haunted by yearnings for the happy childhood he never had, Roy, against his better judgment, gets involved with an unstable young woman and her “sister,” trying to set them on the right path. This is the type of novel with a hero equipped with testicles so large he needs a forklift to drag them around the country roads and all the women are treacherous whores with shapely culus. The very fine prose redeems the latent silliness. The only thing that didn’t work for me was the few not very plausible WD-40’d plot twists. I think he could have left it a little more open ended.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Alexandra by Valerie Martin

An enchanted island, a knife throwing amazon, an aging ladies man and a labyrinth

In New Orleans, a beaten down government bureaucrat meets a cool unattached bartender, the Alexandra of the title. Little does the bureaucrat realize he resembles a key figure from her past. He falls in love or lust with her and when she asks him to come to the island so she help her “best” friend with an impending childbirth, he discards his old life to say yes. After a while he figures out how to make her erotically attached to him (not so difficult really). At a certain point, the plot breaks down and I couldn’t figure out how it ends or what I was supposed to feel at the end. But the story was strangely absorbing, like a fairy tale. Vividly presented.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Blame by Michelle Huneven

What is a life? Accumulated moments, or one defining action? And what if you wasted your life, not really being true to your impulses, but by being someone better?

I enjoyed this book, though it took some pages to get into it as it has an off putting prologue that only makes sense at the end of the book. The themes of this novel are much deeper than they appear.  I want to reread it already – just because the clues are so cleverly hidden at the beginning. The main character is Patsy MacLemoore. She kills a mother and a little girl while driving drunk and gets sent to prison, which is depicted (accurately I’m sure) as a soulless violent place. Patsy has very little emotional reaction in the prison scenes, which makes it hard to “get” her. But she reacts quite a bit in the last part of the book when she’s learning to be human again. Patsy wants to punish herself in prison, and afterwards. She knows she has to change her instinctive reaction to things. We get two glimpses early of the irrepressible Patsy, the mouthy Patsy, the kind of mean obnoxious drunk Patsy. Then after the accident and the horrors of prison, which truly is a punishment, the forced-to-be-good Patsy. The scared straight Patsy. The repression of every normal mischievous urge thereafter. Therefore, when the plot twist happens (which feels a bit contrived), Patsy’s resentful that no one applauds her life of repression and good works. Was it worth it – all that self sacrifice?

She’s relieved when she realizes she doesn’t have to interact with the saintly guy whose wife and kid she thought she murdered. He’s boring. The final scene reunites the characters in the prologue. Her life has been interrupted. Her new life might not be so good but at least it’s hers.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald

You can’t regard love head on – maybe off to the side a bit

Perhaps this is what historical fiction is supposed to be - not the disgorgement of two tons of researched facts, but the creation of a world, of an emotional climate, of a characteristic feeling. I learned a few things about the late eighteenth century- People died young, and therefore everyone is stricken with dread, and there’s a lot more seizing the day. I learned women had more power than you’d think and Goethe was kind of a dick.

This novel is about Novalis, the German Romantic writer, aka Fritz.  It's also about his family, and the chronicling of his courtship of a 12 year old rather dense girl with TB. The novel is not really about the lovers, who come across as ciphers, but about the ring of caring people, mostly women, trying to do the right thing for the lovers.

It’s very well written - a master class in showing not telling. The characterization is boiled down, each distinguished with a phrase or two or scrap of dialogue. The opening scene is spectacular, as is the final scene. I lost heart in the middle and it grew onerous to read as I didn't really care about Fritz who seemed a flibbertigibbet. But it picked up at the end. This wooly headed philosopher has to work in the salt mines – that’s funny. They all end up dying – that’s sad.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Room by Emma Donoghue

Time to grow up

Jack and Ma live in Room beneath Skylight.  They exercise every day and watch a lot of Television.  At night Jack is shut up in Wardrobe while Old Nick spends time with Ma.  One day Jack turns 5and Ma lets him know a secret, entrusting him with a job he does not really want - help them escape from Room.  And when he succeeds, his view of the world entirely changes.

This novel has its gimmicky moments but it really is very skillfully executed. Narrated by a five year old child, the first part is a legitimate white knuckled thriller.  It is impossible to put the book down - what will happen to our appealing five year old narrator and his resourceful mother, little more than a child herself? A horrible fate threatens. Heroism ensues. The source of a lot of the emotion (and the gimmick) is the child relying the terrifying facts of his situation –which to him is perfectly normal – their incarceration for years and years in a garden shed.

There are other things going on, of course, other levels of meaning. The garden shed is almost a platonic ideal – there’s one of everything – Duvet, Comb, Bath. There’s a fairy tale element here as well – Alice in Wonderland, a scary ogre. The most frightening part is the idea of having to entertain a young child for five years in a confined space. The tremendous amount of attention Ma pays to Jack in the garden shed is unlikely to be repeated on the Outside, with its distractions.  Their unnatural life giving bond is also depicted.

And then we get Outside. And in this section Emma Donoghue skillfully reveals numerous other characters by their dialogue. And it’s comical. I really enjoyed this book.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

After World War II, something haunts a crumbling English mansion

Perhaps my opinion here is more a commentary on modern attention spans, rather than the quality of this one book. But I couldn’t finish it. Nothing happened for pages and pages. I usually read on a plane (ideal) or in 15 minutes chunks at the end of the day, which is how I read this novel. I had heard good things about this writer and was eager to read her, but the novel was like a pleasant warm bath that you could see was going to go on for 9 hours. The prose style was relentlessly bland. The characters seemed distinct but not really very compelling and the story was so slow moving, even though the story was haunting and I did think sometimes about the book when I wasn’t reading it. I debated stopping several times before I finally did. My son asked me to check his math homework and I happily dropped the book to do so. That’s when I knew I should quit.

Part of it is probably that the demise of the English class system holds little resonance for an (Irish) American.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

Who is the Blind Assassin?

I liked this so much that when I got to the end, I started right up again on page one. I needed to figure out the puzzle. Even though during the second go round, the story grew a little creaky and some squashed bunnies and doves were visible. This novel works on many levels. A love story, a puzzle, a history of Canada between the wars, an study of old age, a science fiction novel, and a really funny satire of many different types of public communication – PTA notes, obituaries, political speeches, the social pages. It’s a story about storytelling and it never grew boring for me as I found the sentences and the words themselves endlessly inventive.

It a story about Iris and her sister Laura, two poor little rich girls and their involvement with two rather thinly sketched out men – one a revolutionary, one an industrialist. The puzzle part is that we have to piece the story together from little chunks, a few pages of narrative. Many many characters – for the most part, fully realized. At heart Atwood is a poet, as the engine of the story is sentimental claptrap. But the story is driven by the narrator’s great yearning - for her lover, for her sister. I am going to read it again.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

The Quickening by Michelle Hoover

Two women struggle against the unremitting brutality of running a farm during the Depression

Well. Glad I'm not a farmer. Very glad. My heart sank as I read the first couple paragraphs – it almost sounded like a parody, but I was quickly sucked into the well constructed plot. There is conflict on every page. The narration alternates between Enidina and Mary, reluctant neighbors on the harsh prairie. They each have deep desires that come to naught. Two very different characters – one utterly stoic, the other forced to be stoic. The many varied characters and the conflicts are monumental when set against the flat endless landscape. For me it was hard to read - unrelenting pessimism about human effort. No joy and absolutely no humor. Also, the prose was a bit too muscular for my taste.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

The Sky Below by Stacey D'Erasmo

A man struggles to heal himself from the trauma caused by his parents’ divorce

This novel starts off great- monumental, mythic, a tragic broken family story. Ambitious. It seems to be about a child’s introduction to our cold world of reality. Gabriel, our narrator, is a low energy huckster, another passive narrator. As he ages, his story becomes whimsical, meandering, random. There are lots of good literary tricks here – no ponderous introductions for new characters, only a vivid little smear. Gabriel is something of an artist. He makes art boxes with emotionally significant objects inside. There’s a great scene where we see the passage of time by his description of a box he could build. The problem was, for me, the book deflates in importance as the story goes on. Gabriel covets a house, he ghostwrites, he gets a mysterious cancer. I liked the end in Mexico, things become important again. The end was BIG. One of the elements  of the novel is a story from Ovid, about a family turning into birds. I’m not sure if that resonates as much as it could. The prose is rather plain. Overall, disappointing as I expected after the great beginning that it would be so good.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Glover's Mistake by Nick Laird

In a beautifully described contemporary London, jealous spite leads a man to destroy his friend’s romantic relationship

If you’re going to go to the trouble of writing a novel, shouldn’t there be a burning compelling reason to do so? A life or death reason you must shout from the rooftops. This book was an exquisitely painted miniature with lovely descriptions of London. The problem is that the stakes are miniscule. Also, the plot machinations and the character motivations for the last third of the novel became frantic and unbelievable. About schlubbly David, a part time English teacher with a Mr. Peepers type alter ego blogger and his incredibly good looking virginal Christian much younger roommate James. Ruth Marks comes into their lives, a dashing 45 year old artist and immediately falling in love with James. They actually decide to get married. But here’s a problem – why would such a “winner” such as Ruth even bother with these two loafers?

In many ways, this book reminded me of Zoe Heller’s Notes On a Scandal (the unreliable narrator while being a friend to the hero, is actually making his life much worse.) Only in that book, the stakes were huge – you couldn’t help but turn the page. It was hard to finish this short novel. What I was really interested in though was David’s relationship with a fellow blogger – that seemed real and sad.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

The Shadow Knows by Diane Johnson

Who knows what evil lurks in the heart of man?

Although never voiced, this question underlies the events in the novel. I really liked this well written unsentimental book – it worked on many levels. About a ditzy young woman, N., divorced and knocked up with four kids, living in a Sacramento housing project and succumbing to paranoia. Or is she? Perhaps every one she knows is in fact out to kill her. That certainly seems to be in the case in the first person narrative. Among other things, The Shadow Knows is also a nanny novel. N. has a black nanny, Ev, with a similar set of problems: a useless husband and a hurtful lover. Someone is out to get both women. The “murderer” starts small, leaving crap on the windshield, a dead cat on the step, slashed tires. Then the murderer gets personal with deadly results. The powers that be – men really, want N. to forget about the issues, ignore the mounting signals. The one saintly helper turns out not to be so saintly after all.

The amazing thing about this book were the fully developed characters from three distinct worlds – the upper class white world N. has rejected/been exiled from, the black world of drunkenness, manual labor, and music, and N's academic life as a college student/mother. The book is full of incredibly politically incorrect dialogue and scenes. But these scenes did not feel fake or phony. At the end N., a “little bitty woman,” is compelled to become a detective, discovering a midnight core of pure savage sexuality. The final scene is N. receiving the “coup de grace.” The mercy blow typically resulting in death, but in this case it brings happiness.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Burning by Diane Johnson

A seemingly sane couple is unbalanced by their swinging neighbors the day before Bel Air burns down.

I laughed aloud several times while reading this novel, which felt very much like a relic of the Sixties. It’s about Bingo and her doctor husband Barney. After the fire department requires them to cut down a hedge, they are suddenly sucked into the communal life of the very eccentric psychiatrist next door and his cast of eccentric patients, specifically the heroine addicted Maxine. Bingo and Maxine switch places one day as Maxine’s children are about to be confiscated by the State of California. The story moves quickly along as Bingo and Barney accept whatever crazy thing their neighbors are doling out. Bingo thinks about morality and life. This is not a frivolous book. At the end, a wildfire threatens to wipe away their neighborhood, but they all survive to love some more.

Visible Spirits by Steve Yarbrough

Wounds of slavery continue to bleed

I really liked this novel. It was emotionally coherent and I thought presented a woman’s point of view well. Loda Jackson is the African American postmistress of a small Mississippi town in the early 1900’s, placed there by Reconstruction. When a wastrel, Tandy Payne, comes to town, he sees an opportunity to kick her out and take the job himself. A flaw of the novel is that Tandy is a capital V villain. His big brother Loring Payne is the good hearted mayor who wants to be fair. The three of them have a shared painful history, history and family compounded. The blacks in the town are fearful of the whites, fearful of a massacre. One such massacre is related in a flashback. This book is also good about learning about history, though the ending was a little confusing and I wasn’t sure exactly what had happened.

Ferris Beach by Jill McCorkle

A teenager girl grows up in a small North Carolina town

This novel left me cold and I almost gave up on it. I puzzled as to why. The writing was clean and descriptive and I truly felt the emotions of Kate, the sensitive smart teenage narrator, the overprotected daughter of two middle aged eccentrics. The characters were remarkable – so many of them – each one of them three dimensional. The little Southern town sprang to life. The plot –there wasn’t much of an overarching one, it felt more like that the story was built from small tangents.  I think the reason I grew disinterested is that the main character is super passive. Vaguely Kate wants to go to Ferris Beach to live with her loopy young aunt she half imagines could be her mother. When she finally does go to Ferris Beach, she realizes in about two minutes her aunt is a flake. Also, certain plot twists needed to be established in Chapter One, but I felt that the plot twists in Chapter 12 were set up too late in Chapter 11.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

A Visitation of the Spirits by Randall Kenan

A Visitation of the Spirits by Randall Kenan

Two young men try to fit themselves in a rural old fashioned culture, that, among other things, despise homosexuality.

I loved the prose style, especially the vivid dialogue and description of country life and country duties. Two stories, two men – Horace Cross, 16, an academic star, and recognizing his unwanted gay urges, and his cousin Rev. James Greene, more sketchily drawn, and who acts as an intermediary between the older generation, suffering, rigid and superstitious, and the younger. I groaned a little when I realized Horace’s story was going to be that Horace, in the grip of some schizophrenic breakdown, wandering nude around their home town, and having hallucinations/flashbacks that explained his life and current dilemma. But you know what – it worked! The Rev Greene’s story gets hung up on multiple families with multiple siblings and I started not to figure out who was who. But he cares.

It’s very readable and I read this in one sitting. (Ok, I was on a plane, but I had other options). World creation – this is what has been done. I don’t know how much hope there is at the end.

Love Invents Us by Amy Bloom

Love Invents Us by Amy Bloom

An overweight bookish teen upends the life of her high school teacher as well as the star basketball player.

The prose is dense, evocative, delightful. But I just didn’t buy that all these people would pine away from love for this kid – change their lives, destroy their lives. As love can do. But when you fall in love with a 17 year old kid, aren’t you falling in love with something other than an unformed tentative soul?  Aren't you sort of falling in love with yourself?  That was not depicted.   There’s very many moving parts in this novel that might not add up to a coherent statement about whether love invents us or not – love can certainly lead you into a ditch – that’s what I learned from this story. I guess it’s about Elizabeth, (the 17 year old) reviewing the motley loves in her life – perhaps only one lover didn’t want anything (anything sordid) from her. However, it was very readable and hard to put down.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Edinburgh by Alexander Chee

The ramifications when a man is obsessed with blond boys.

Three structures uphold the frame of the poetic writing - the story of the abuse, the Korean mythology, and the underused metaphor of the plague city of Edinburgh. The latter two are sterling and compelling. But the abuse plot wasn't clearly defined for me, and degenerates into implausibility near the end. The sensitive narrator is abused as a child, becomes suicidal, recovers, is happy and then is tempted to abuse. The problem is that I didn't understand why the abuse (which was pretty vague) made him suicidal. The choir director shows them dirty pictures, they hike naked. Within the context of the novel, I needed better to understand the betrayal of the little boy, as well as the betrayal of morality. It turned the narrator a passive victim, not good for moving the story along.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

The Great Divorce by Valerie Martin

Under great pressure, people split in two. Which is their real self – the civilized half or the animal half?

Three stories, set in New Orleans, a wonderful setting as the paranormal can be incorporated without a moment’s hesitation. Reoccuring themes - Mothers and daughters, a black leopard. The vet with the perfect life and the philandering husband, the oppressed girl with the hectoring mother, the antebellum Creole woman a prisoner on the plantation. All three stories are very readable, although the crazy zoo attendant plot gets a bit ponderous. The vet stops herself from commiting murder – but the other two – well they are overwhelmed by their oppression, their civilized nature vanishing like smoke. A very thoughtful novel.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Florida by Christine Schutt

Unstable Alice abandons her sensitive daughter Alice

I really liked this. A series of precise painful images, one after the other telling the story of a girl, growing older, who is abandoned, first by her father and his mysterious drowning, and then by her drink addled mother.  The mother spends her time lying on her Wisconsin lawn in a foil lined box called “Florida”.  Huge chunks of this book are very funny. The girl resorts to getting love from her uncle’s chauffeur, from her mute grandma, from an English teacher. Though she doesn’t really. Nothing in this book is spelled out, and there is nothing extraneous, but everything is there. The daughter eventually abandons the mother in a nursing home.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Exiles by Ron Hansen

It’s about dying

At first I was annoyed by the book’s setup – the many characters being introduced was like something out of the Towering Inferno. Laughable, really. Five young nuns in Germany, and the Jesuit priest Gerard Manley Hopkins. We learn their humble histories of why they decided to join religious orders and how the nuns came to be on the ship Deustchland, which ran aground in icy weather. The nuns froze to death and Hopkins wrote a poem about it. At a certain point, however, a tension begins to grow and the book becomes almost unbearable to read. How exactly will they die? And they all do – one by one. All six main characters have something in common – they have made a decision to try to live in a different way – to try to purge the ego of pride. But still to achieve something – in the nuns’s case – to help people. The practice of humility.

The counterpoint to the story of the doomed nuns is Hopkins’s daily life, his unsuccessful (so it seems) attempt to get traction with the Jesuits, the public rejection of his very weird poems. He was sort of a slight little nerd, and his poetry a passionate heartbeat. This book didn’t help me understand the connection. But it helped me understand some other things – by not overexplaining everything.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Union Atlantic by Adam Haslett

Crises, financial, moral and sexual, engulf three members of the East Coast ruling classes.

Well, I was disappointed. This was like a diamond necklace strung together with twine and then you see that some of the diamonds are actually tin foil. Two stories I was utterly drawn into – that of the eccentric WASP Charlotte Graves and her struggle against crass modernity and that of Nate Fuller, the half orphaned boy who is enthralled by the cold beauty and dominance of his neighbor Doug Fanning. It’s Doug Fanning that’s the problem. He is completely invulnerable and therefore completely uninteresting. It’s only at the end that he doesn’t seem like a plot driven robot, but with a man with something to lose. His ambition leads him to conceal a massive trading fraud and thus radically understate the third largest US bank’s capital. (Snore) We need to see what this means personally to him, and we don’t. There might be too much going on here. Two old rich white guys are involved in the plot but I kept having to turn back pages to figure out who was who.

The Fourth of July party, the scene where all the characters are brought together, is entertaining to read. But the main conflict is a sparkler and it needs to be a neutron bomb. Financial ruin in the abstract is a bore. But an old lady eating toast – now that can be interesting.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Call Me by Your Name by Andre Aciman

In Italy, several years ago, a seventeen year old boy longs to pull down the red bathing suit of a young visiting scholar

The evocative setting the bedrock of this book – Italy, a summer house on the water, an affluent professor, his educated family, the comic servants, the beautiful girls drifting in and out, the sensitive son too easily attached to people. The prose also was very elegant and the descriptions beautiful. My problem was that the novel failed to evoke a sense of the romance between the two young men. It took FOREVER to pull down that red bathing suit. During most of the novel, the stakes were entirely too low. Will they kiss? Will they not kiss? Only at the very end did I realize that their affair was a life changing event for both of them. But why?

Finding Nouf by Zoe Ferraris

A man and a woman in a sexually repressive culture try to solve a mystery together

I loved the way this unfamiliar, even highly unsympathetic Saudi Arabian culture was realized. I learned something about Saudi men through the main character, Nayir, a Muslim man. He doesn’t hate women – he’s just very modest and understands he may never get a bride without a third party introduction. Walking down the street is a minefield for both men and woman (more so for women). When Nayir meets Katya, a somewhat liberated woman, they try to solve a murder in Katya’s fiancé’s family. The novel is about their feelings and their need to conceal that they’re working together. I really liked the setting, I liked the characters – what I didn’t like was the way the murder plot kept mechanically ripping into the far more interesting story of Nayir and Katya’s relationship.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

This is My Daughter by Roxana Robinson

Can you really build a new family from the broken chunks of two old ones? Or is détente the best you’re going to get?

An undercurrent of unease in this novel about a second marriage. The new couple is far more suited to each other than the former spouses, however, the marriage is complicated/threatened by loyalties to existing children. Is a stepparent expected to “love” the stepchild? Are you a bad person if you don’t? Do you harm the stepchild if you don’t? The novel is put together with a lot of craft, so that the tension builds, though many scenes are ponderous and could easily be shortened. Also, the motivations leading to the conclusion are a little tenuous, but necessary if the plot is to land on the happy ending. However, I really liked the way the characters were three dimensional – everyone is a mixture of saint and villain. Finally, it’s an overview of a certain kind of WASP lifestyle – servants and summer houses. That on its own was interesting.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore

Some people (that is, everybody) shouldn’t have kids

The constant wisecracking by every single character grated. The culminations of the three plots clumsily unveiled, out of the blue in a big boom alarmingly close to the end. However, at least this novel was about BIG themes; global warming, motherhood, working women, racism, 9/11. And I couldn’t put it down. It’s about Tassie Keltjin , a 20 year old girl who distractingly and more important distancingly talks/thinks like a 47 year old cynic. But in the final chapters, when Tassie crawls into a coffin to be with a dead body, I thought, ok now we’re getting somewhere. In general though, the emotional reactions are unearned because we really don’t care about the characters. The first plot is the story of an unhappy couple who adopt a biracial child. They also have a melodramatic secret. The second plot and this is so sketchy as to be incomprehensible, concerns Tassie’s relationship with a would be suicide bomber (I think). The final plot, which for me worked the best (in so far as any of these insufficiently plotted plots can be said to work) is the story of Tassie’s younger brother, who enlists in the Army. I liked the last part of the book best where she goes back to the farm and has an imaginative breakdown. Overall, though the writing was good, consistently interesting, and to tell you the truth, outraged about America, this was a big disappointment.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

New World Monkeys by Nancy Mauro

A young couple’s marriage as well as their minds (and maybe their morality) start to disintegrate when they spend the summer in the country outside of New York City.

The writing is striking, using an extensive palette of words. The arc of the story peters out in the middle of the book, and I started not to give a shit but kept reading, maybe just to read the thought provoking paragraphs. Once the summer starts, both husband and wife take separate paths to transgression – the wife touring with a creepy Peeping Tom, the husband devising a shocking idea to sell jeans. Together they excavate a skelton in the garden. They’re obsessed with it, and I wasn’t sure why. I think I grew distinterested because the story migrated from the heart and lower to strictly the head. Distancing. For example, a climatic scene is when the friendly lecher actually rips the panties from an unwilling teenager. This doesn't resonate the way you would expect - the reader is sort of put in the position of cheering him on. The ending does not fit – the husband and wife drifting down the river? Not really motivated. This comes after the realization that they’ve both been wasting their time. Perhaps it’s really about the feminization of the American male? That might be where the energy of the book lies.

The Geographer's Library by Jon Fasman

A secret society gathers certain items that were stolen from a geographer’s ancient library, meanwhile a journalist in a country paper get increasingly serious hints that something’s not quite right with a professor’s death.

The alternation of the exotic and the mundane sets up a compelling rhythm, but then the exotic parts keeps ending in the exact some way – some rube in an far off locale gets bumped off. At first I couldn’t put it down, then the repetition degenerated the story. By the end I was completely thrown off the carnival ride, waiting for it to be over. All the characters sound the same (cheesy banter), except for the exotic parts, but still I kept reading. So something was keeping me going. The story never tied together, however. The damsel in distress wasn’t in that much distress –in the end, she turns into Nosferatu. The story ends with the crack assassin getting outpunched by the nerdy hero. (?)

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Sweetwater by Roxana Robinson

As the world burns, a woman is unable to help her man.

Skillfully put together. The scenes start small, seemingly inconsequential, then the stakes grow higher, the scenes more harrowing. The novel is about Isobel Green and her two marriages, ok make that three marriages. Three stories intertwine to make up the novel– the destruction of the planet, the sudden realization that Isobel should not have gotten married a second time if she wasn’t going to do it for love, and the interspersed scenes from Isobel’s tragic first marriage. She’s paralyzed then and paralyzed now because there is nothing she can do to fix her first husband’s depression. But she never manages to accept that. The three stories echo each other. There’s a beautiful image at the end, but the scene before the end gets histrionic, a little unbelieveable.

The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood

Mother earth shrugs off most of humanity (with a hand from a mad scientist) – are we worth saving completely?

The book was packed with ideas and theories. We’re killing the earth, and therefore killing ourselves. It might not be good idea for corporations to modify DNA for profit. To refuse to conform might mean you might have to go underground. This book is two things at once – a political tract and a novel. Unfortunately, the novel part , or at least the plotting, breaks down at the end. Are we supposed to believe that 6 billion people on earth get wiped out by a virus and the 20 people remaining (who all know each other) coincidentally keep bumping into each other? The description of the God’s Gardener’s (the environmental church’s) way of life was absorbing and I liked the way a new vocabulary weaves its way naturally into the story (and maybe into real life discourse as well). I also liked that the book was structured around the religious hymns of the God’s Gardeners. Near the end, the scenes get a little too sketchy like a paint by number where paint's running out. Not as resonant as it could be.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

A Room With a View by E.M. Forster

A young woman decides for herself that society’s rules about who she can marry aren't going to work for her

On this second go round, I decided I didn’t really like the novel all that much, (although I admired how concise it was – not a wasted word). I liked all the different characters – fully developed with the most economical strokes. The third person narrator too aggressively charming – with bared teeth. Lucy Honeychurch is kind of an indecisive dope. I wonder if marrying a railroad clerk was ever much of an obstacle. The putative obstacle, that of a suitor unsuitable because of class distinctions, has no meaning today, and I suspect was a 6 inch obstacle in Forster’s time. Only the silliest characters think it an issue. And so, a result, the stakes were low for me.

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

A woman goes through two husbands before she finally finds one who lets her be herself.

Two stories going on at the same time – the first is of Janie, who is oppressed under the thumb of two dour husbands then one day wakes up with Tea Cake, younger,full of fun, who loves Janie for herself. The other story is that of the people, or chorus, who are always in the background, working and telling jokes or insulting each other.  In general being lively and entertaining. The story doesn’t build like a classic plot would build – it’s more about Janie being ready to find her happiness, finding it, having it be better than expected, and then having it taken away. But she is still happy because she has the memory of Tea Cake. The flood scene is the big scene, and felt a little plopped in, although incredibly memorable ,as the book needed to be wrapped up, rather than the characters were racing towards this deadly flood. The prose is vivid, compelling and original. I wasn’t crazy about the dialect- it slowed down the pace as I had to read it outloud.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Property by Valerie Martin

A woman is oppressed and oppresses on an antebellum sugar cane plantation

This book is like a Rubik’s cube – artfully put together. A crude slaveowner oppresses both his genteel wife and the slave who bore his children. They are both property and they both hate him. One gets her freedom, the other doesn’t. The wife has the highest standards in the book yet is corrupted by the system. It never occurs to her that slaves could possess rights, just as it never occurs to her husband that women might have rights, though the wife desperately wants her freedom. She’s been sheltered from any other concepts besides slaves being property and using methods ranging from sadistically cruel to cruel to control them. Remarkably, the n-word doesn’t show up in this book. The narrator is extremely unsympathetic and yet she has a strong will to live, for freedom. The story is ultimately sad.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Swimming by Nicola Keegan

A girl from a crazy Kansas family wins 12 Olympic gold medals in swimming.

I really loved this book. The Olympic gold plot merely a coat hanger for the energetic observations of the narrator (who bears many names), most frequently Pip. Using hardly any dialogue, the entire book is Pip’s impressions of the world. Key elements are the poetic rhythms of the prose and the black humor. I love the way the author was able to compress an entire scene, an entire story in a single paragraph. Lots of emotion, expressed and unexpressed. I didn’t quite understand the nervous breakdown in Paris at the end, or how it caps the narrative drive, but overall the book was delightful to read.

Monday, February 15, 2010

The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood

Penelope waits for Odysseus, not all that quietly.

I enjoyed this, an erudite explanation of what motivated Penelope since who in history has cared what has motivated Penelope because Odysseus gets all the press. This is a comic story rather than a novel. It’s actually more like a gloss on a story. Or it’s a lecture. But in the end, the overall impression was slight and a little chilly.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathanael West

An advice columnist realizes some problems can never be solved, certainly not with a witty paragraph answer.

And now that Miss Lonelyhearts knows about these sad people and their horrible unfixable problems he can’t go on living normally – that is the drinking, whoring, lying the other characters all participate in. He needs to find a substitute – he thought he had a substitute in God, but that doesn’t work either. What is it all about? That’s what the characters want to know. You can’t make cripples whole – that’s the answer. A savage book! Not comforting at all. The prose style lapidary, powerful, nothing is wasted. It’s like a scream.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey

A man struggles against the sticky tentacles of suffocating modern society as personified by a big titted nurse.

I never realized what a good read this book was – the plot races along, pulling the reader with it. The conflict is clear and sharp. RP McMurphy thinks he’s going to outsmart the system by transferring from jail to the nuthouse. But this time he’s the one who gets outsmarted. Instead of backtracking and being shrewd, and saving himself, he sacrifices himself for the weak lunatics who have lost their manhood. He gives them a sense of worth, and a sense of fun. The book is full of great details from the asylum. The characters are presented very vividly, yet a little clichéd. None of them are really very surprising.

The twist is that the novel is narrated by a crazy person who of course can see the truth. The strong man afraid to use his strength. The dated misogyny drew me out of the story at times. Sympathetic women characters revere McMurphy, though he comes off as a fuck up.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

On Beauty by Zadie Smith

Two academic families, one liberal, one conservative, both black, keep encountering each other while disaster ensues.

Only the mothers connect – they have no interest in staking out a philosophical position like the men are. But what a novelist! What characters! This book is ambitious and offers opinions about political correctness, liberal pieties, America, marriage, young men, sex and love. And art too – poetry and painting. The fresh take is that there is a black perspective – the rich black conservative academic, the middle class black hospital administrator, the poor Haitian waiter – we see things from their side, as we usually don't.

The only problem is the ending – these big themes and big characters don’t resolve in a big significant scene rather I felt like the bloody stumps of the plotlines were cauterized to wrap everything up, and we end up with a beautifully written paragraph, rather than an ending that fits the architecture of the book. Nonetheless, I really enjoyed this novel.

Mary Reilly by Valerie Martin

A servant whose devotion becomes all encompassing suffers true pain by witnessing the disintegration of Dr. Henry Jekyll

I really liked this extraordinarily well crafted novel, a monochromatic study of repressed feelings. The first scene is vivid and memorable – a bloody hand drawing the reader into the story and not letting you up for air. There’s not a false word in the entire book. I liked how we really got a detailed idea of a servant’s duties in Victorian England, working from sun up to sun down. This particular servant lights a lot of fireplaces. The extreme realism of the voice makes the unlikely premise – that the evil part of Dr. Jekyll has taken on a physical existence, completely believable. This narrator works very hard at being good – she completely trusts Dr. Jekyll – that’s why she can’t believe what is in front of her eyes. She won’t let herself believe that he has this capability for evil inside him.

Monday, January 18, 2010

The Good Thief by Hannah Tinti

A one handed boy meets a lot of quirky eccentrics as he searches for his family

This was a hard book for me to get through – it meanders. Ren, the boy, is claimed from an orphanage, encounters lots of spooky characters and situations in a sort of fairy tale time and place. But Ren left me cold as a main character, but how could a sensitive orphan with a weakness for thievery leave me cold? He doesn’t yearn for anything and is passive? The details are unique, imaginative and numerous, but the tension never builds. Only at the end, when the boy is claimed by his uncle, that I started to get drawn into the story. About a fourth of the way in, I decided to grit my teeth and finish it (for the book seems rather short), but it was painful. The prose style was vivid and succeeded in producing an odd tone – we clearly are in a distinct different world. I like the fact the time and the setting are not quite realistic.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

White Teeth by Zadie Smith

What does it mean to be English?

This book starts out so memorably – so full of energy and funny. A breath of fresh air. This novel works on so many levels – the prose is rollicking and the themes are IMPORTANT –the immigrant experience, colonialism, racism, the thoughtless tinkering of science, Islamic fundamentalism, the past impinging on the present. This is the story of three families, the mixed Jones, the immigrant Iqbals, the intellectually superior Chalfens. It’s not just about teenagers smoking cigarettes. I loved the characters – they were very passionate, quirky, fully realized, the kind Archie, the outraged Samad , the yin yang twins. However, a problem is that the book never quite hit the very superior high point of the opening section. And then, disappointingly, the ending feels forced, too many brilliantly colored threads to be wrapped up. Doesn’t quite work – the last section felt hurriedly written and tacked on.

Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

A fuckup finds himself the last living man on earth.

And yet the story is about how this fuck up Jimmy/Snowman was entrusted with the future of the humanity, or at least the future of a tribe of gentle souls called crakers, who’ve had all the sex and violence tinkered out of them. The story bounces back and forth through time, with funny energetic descriptions of this future world, its social divisions and the fantastic new creatures the corporations create. In this world, virtually everyone is crushed by the soulless corporate/militaristic bureaucracy. Jimmy/Snowman is a low achiever – for good reasons. My sympathy for him grew. However, I was very disappointed as I kept reading and soon began to realize that Oryx and Crake, who seem like tragic interesting characters, are never going to climb on the stage. When they finally do appear, they are very insubstantial. And their end, therefore, has little resonance.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Lark and Termite by Jayne Anne Phillips

A sister and a brother live with the loss of their mother in 1950's West Virginia

This novel is really two entwined stories – a young soldier trapped in a tunnel during the Korean War and the evocatively written story of two siblings, one an adolescent girl, then other a brain damaged boy. The value of the book comes from the vivid descriptions of the small town and the friends and family and the quite moving love they have for each other. As more details of the town and the characters and their history accumulate, especially from the distinctive points of view of the siblings, the power of the book grows. There’s a flood scene that gets quite gripping, reminding me of something fantastical, like from the Wizard of Oz. However, the reader must make an effort to continue near the beginning as the Korean battle scenes feel repetitive (at least to me) and therefore boring. Overall, there are long stretches of beautiful set pieces occasionally held together by clunky exposition. I really liked a lot of the descriptions of the landscape – a field of grass, a ditch. However, the ending feels tacked on and not believable. Also, there’s an albino ghost popping in occasionally – not sure what he adds.