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 fiancĂ©’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.