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.