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 clich├ęd. 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.