Saturday, December 31, 2011

Stone Arabia by Dana Spiotta

Is controllable fantasy ultimately more painful than hard reality?

This was an amazing book. When I was finished, I wanted to turn to page one and start all over because I sensed there were patterns and motifs I missed. The writing was beautiful and the ideas beneath the writing were thought-provoking. How do we live our life now? How do we comfort ourselves now?

The themes were dreams, aspirations, memories, and regrets, depicted using the technological tools of modern life: Youtube, cell phones, and twenty four hour news channels.

The book is about a brother and a sister. Nik Kranis, a failed musician, defined by our society as a loser, has in fact not abandoned his art, and in a way, not abandoned ambition either. For twenty five years he has continued recording albums in a garage, though albums only for himself. He’s created and documented a complete fantasy world (The Chronicles) of rock stardom. He’s nutty. The sister, Denise, is afraid she’s losing her memory because her mother has Alzheimer’s. Denise get overly emotionally involved with 24 hour news channels and far off people’s tragedies. Her empathy has gotten out of control (or has it?). Meanwhile, Denise’s daughter finds a perfect documentary subject in Uncle Nik.

The siblings grew up in the heart of Hollywood, each one with a Hollywood dream. Nik will be a rock star, Denise will be a movie star. Nik is handsome, Denise is pretty. What can stop them? Twenty five years later, Denise is a secretary with an upside down mortgaged house in Santa Clarita and Nik is a bartender in a run down one bedroom in Topanga Canyon. Both live in Southern Californian suburbia about as far away from Hollywood dreams as you can get.

Denise’s story feels more complete – in many ways, the novel is about her responding to Nik’s madness. At the end of the book, she travels to Stone Arabia. The title remains a mystery until the very end. Denise disconnects from the Internet and transforms her voyeurism of pity into a face to face connection. That scene is ambiguous. Does technology make us better off?

The stories sort of fall apart at the end, especially Nik’s story and it felt like a semi suitable ending was patched on. But overall, a very impressive book.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

The Road by Cormac McCarthy

A father finds a reason to live in a post apocalyptic landscape by protecting his young son

I thought I would hate this because I heard it was pretentious, but I was completely sucked in and ended up liking it quite a bit. The story was gripping and the prose style, for the most part, was unadorned. The story is presented simply – a father and son walk down a road, somewhere in the American South, through an ash covered landscape. Though sometimes it’s very difficult to walk down that road because civilization, laws and manners have vanished and packs of ruthless cannibals are everywhere. Yet the father persists. Because they “carry the light”. “We’re the good guys.”

This book reminded me of Emma Donaghue’s Room – basically the same plot, about the depth of parental love flowering in an intolerable situation. Saving the child becomes the organizing principle of the parent’s life, even though it is clear they are doomed.   Room had more of a sense of humor and The Road has absolutely no sense of humor. Although in Room, our plucky heroes get rescued. Here there apparently is no rescue (though there is a hiker ex machina).

In this novel, humans have already destroyed the world. I liked the presentation of the destroyed landscapes, the mountains, the oceans, the cities. This novel was also a reminder and a meditation on what would actually happen if civilization was destroyed. We would revert back to the cunning animal state and it would be very bad news for the weak.

There are a few logical problems – in this imagined world there are no bugs, no rabbits, but our two humans keep running into lots of other humans and a seemingly unlimited supply of canned peaches.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Sarah Canary by Karen Joy Fowler

Who is Sarah Canary?

At first I was delighted by the lively and vivid prose and quirky characters bouncing off each other but at around the third chapter I realized each chapter was the same – every character is projecting their idea of untrammeled womanhood upon the blank slate of the ever moving madwoman Sarah Canary. Ok. Got it. The plot eventually geared up, ending with a big set piece at the San Francisco Zoo but I felt the story never quite came to a conclusion. Therefore I was left with the feeling that I didn’t get it. Especially not the prettily written end.

This is a historical novel about a group of society's outcasts running around the muddy Northwest. We never see inside of the head of the mute (mentally deficient?) Sarah Canary, but our two main narrative consciousness are Chin, the pigtailed immigrant, and BJ the madman recently escaped from the asylum. They are both in love with or in some sort of thrall to Sarah Canary. Later they are joined by proto feminist Miss Dixon. All of them will have their lives turned upside down by their pursuit of Sarah Canary. To protect her? To possess her?

Every chapter opens with an Emily Dickinson poem and also a rundown of current events happening at that time with an ironic emphasis on the subjugation of women.

I have mixed feelings about this one. The prose was lively and the characters were wonderful and I learned a lot about the historical period. Though I was disappointed at the end, I am definitely going to read more of Karen Joy Fowler.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Moby Dick by Herman Melville

A deranged man risks all to chase a demonic whale, interspersed with a leisurely history of the whaling industry.

The architecture of this book is majestic, and as I read, I palpably felt the majestic blocks being shifted into place. The Pequod, its own little world. The four teams of smaller boats. Starbuck, Stubb and Flask -- The religious first mate, the irreverent second mate, the materialistic third mate. The four heathen harpooners, yet more Christian in many ways than the Christians. The dark Quaker leader, Ahab. The unthinking white whale that can never be defeated. And our narrator, the scholarly Ishmael.

This novel is a compendium – a great plot, an encyclopedia, metaphysical musings, a la Hamlet, a play, songs, low comedy. It’s a catchall. Although the narrative wasn’t all that gripping, except in parts (and those parts were extremely gripping). I would describe the book as edifying, but edifying doesn’t make for eager easy reading. My goal was 100 pages a day and the daily last 40 were hard going. The final fifty pages of the book are magnificent. The thing is, I don’t really care to know about whales. But I do want to know about life and how it is experienced.  

Three things are going on in this book – an incredibly gripping chase story with cool imagery like harpoons forged in the blood of heathens, an academic exploration of all the things associated with the whaling industry, and a philosophical dialogue about what is the purpose of a man’s life, if any.

This was the fourth book in my project of Re-reading the Classics. The first three books were excellent, as well as a delight and a pleasure to read and I could not put them down. Moby Dick was different. I had to pay close attention as Moby Dick is about many things. However, all four books have in common GREAT characters, larger than life – characters who seem to exist outside the book. All of them have powerful motivations.

 I’m learning a lot.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Girl in the Flammable Skirt by Aimee Bender

Whimsical things happen but the whimsical things draw blood

What a good writer, I kept thinking, as I read through Aimee Bender’s book of short stories.  What a great prose stylist.  The sentences were amazing. Scary glimpses, transgressions, were treated matter of factly, although, like a lot of short story collections, after a while, it grew monotonous in its obsessions. It was like Cherries Jubilee for breakfast and Cherries Jubilee for lunch and Cherries Jubilee for dinner. A few too many of the stories felt glib and not deeply moving.

However, this book was completely original. My favorite story was “Call My Name,” about a rich girl on the SF Muni who propositions men and then meets a man who doesn’t seem interested in her, although he seems interested enough to give her what she wants. I also like “Fell This Girl” about a girl who is having trouble making impressions on those closest to her.

Monday, November 21, 2011

The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris

A man compulsively walks himself to death.

I enjoyed Then We Came to the End, Joshua Ferris's first novel, for, even though the second person plural narration was an outright gimmick, I felt that the gimmick eventually split wide to reveal true emotions, as well as truly comic insights into modern office life. The Unnamed, his second novel, has a gimmick as well. A man can’t stop walking. Instaplot. Set those legs in motion and let’s see what happens.

In general, I felt the book was beautiful and touching but went on a little too long. The scenes got repetitive. It’s about Tim Farnsworth, who seems to have a wonderful life, with Jane, his perfect wife and Becka, his unfortunately chubby daughter. The only strange note is his workaholic nature – it sounds like he spends fourteen to sixteen hours a day at the office. Until he can’t, despite all his will. He is stricken with a malady – without warning, he starts walking for miles and miles until his body is exhausted. This is a problem in the dead of winter when he’s not wearing a coat. The engine of the plot are those legs - those legs take away everything from Tim Farnsworth that makes Tim Farnsworth.

He walks all over America, losing his toes, his fingers and eventually his mind. It’s really a story about a husband and wife’s devotion. I’m not sure if this novel could be described as realism. What is the Unnamed? The rejection of identity. Thank goodness, he’s a little like Batman with ready access to an ATM.

There are two subplots sort of half heartedly inserted, unsuccessfully – Jane’s drunkeneness and some murder mystery with a cleaver and a Fugitive like "real killer". I didn’t need them and was completely gripped by the legs walking and the sleeping in the dumpsters and the landscapes.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

Sivilization ain’t so great.

Huckleberry Finn is the third book in my Re-reading the Classics series and I keep asking myself why didn't I start rereading the classics years ago? All three books so far have been incredibly absorbing and thought provoking. Social issues are engaged, never directly, but sideways, although the society is the skeleton of each novel, provoking the character’s ultimate quests. Finally, each of these novels has been great page turners, helped along by great larger than life charismatic characters. Jane Austen and Mark Twain are masters of dialogue. Charlotte Bronte is a master at setting.

So,anyway, I loved Huck Finn. Like all great books, it succeeds on many levels. First of all, it’s an angry indictment of American culture; its elevated respect for righteous ignorance; its hypocrisy, its quick recourse to violence. The  things wrong with America in 2011 are the same things wrong with America in the 1840’s.

Secondly, this book is a celebration of nature. The man and the boy escape down a broad river through a primeval wilderness, a lost time. The descriptions of the river are extremely beautiful, told in Huck’s unique first person narration. One thing I didn’t realize on earlier readings – Huck and Jim are lazing around naked on that raft. Not politically correct for our time, for sure. But emblematic of their innocent state. Civilization is a threat. They are truly outlaws.

Finally, it’s great story, a boy’s adventure story, with storms and capsizing boats and vigilantes and feuds and bags of gold hidden in coffins. I swallowed completely the miraculous plot twist at the end that Jim is imprisoned at Aunt Sally’s house, because it fit right into the crazy mechanics of Tom Sawyer’s swashbuckling books.

The most wonderful things are Huck and his observations. He’s smart and he’s good. Early on the reader starts to root for him. Much of the interactions between Huck and the women he meets along the way are sweetly observed.

The story really is about the institution of slavery and the forced inferiority of the black man to the white man. All the highly dramatic highly emotional parts of the story have to do with the absurdity and the cruelty of slavery, the separation of families. I cried when Jim told the story of discovering his daughter was deaf. In this story are two log cabin prisons – one with Huck, one with Jim. They both escape.

The black people are presented as terrified and superstitious and are the basis for much of the comedy. The white men are presented as ignorant and violent and are the basis for much of the comedy. Jim is superstitious, kind, loyal and subservient. He is as elemental as the river.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

On Agate Hill by Lee Smith

Life is horrible and wonderful at the same time.

I really enjoyed this book, because it works on many levels. First of all, it's a historical novel about the Reconstruction, and fulfills the educational and entertainment requirements of that genre. We learn a lot about the causes and consequences of the Civil War, as well as get a lot of pretty ladies flouncing around in fancy dress. Secondly, the novel is also a stylistic experiment that uses letters and diaries and court testimonies to tell the story. (As well as a goofily comic contemporary frame.) Finally, the
book is about a great central character, Molly Petree, who is a child at the beginning and a very old lady at the end. Although she ultimately leads a life of near constant suffering, she is still full of life and love. In fact, the novel expresses a sort of a philosophy. Despite immense pressure, Molly chooses to be her own person and to be joyful. The writing is uniformly marvelous, lush and vivid and descriptive. The point of this book is all about the Molly’s voice.

There’s no classical arc of plot, in fact, but I didn’t mind. I’d follow Molly anywhere.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Still Water Saints by Alex Espinoza

Humans need some extrahuman help to deal with what life brings

A chapter or two into this, I thought, my heart sinking, oh this is one of those linked short story deals masquerading as a real novel, but as I progressed through the story of a small Los Angeles exurb and its inhabitants, I conceded, well, almost. It’s almost a novel. An embryonic novel is buried here – one about a old woman, Perla, born with a gift she didn’t want and Dario, a illegal teenager in mortal danger that she tries to save.

The writing is very careful, painterly and illuminating. There is a rare willingness not to look away from tragedy and sadness. However, the problem with the linked short stories format is that the architecture doesn’t soar. Tension doesn’t build, but is dissipated. Also, I felt it needed more transgression.

There’s an anthropological/educational interest in this book as well. We get a glimpse into the Mexican saints, the uses of the 7 day candle, the bringing to life of the beliefs of this little community. The parents are immigrants, the children are Americans, and there is an unbridgeable gulf between them.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Torch by Cheryl Strayed

A family copes with the premature death of the mother

This was a well written novel, deeply felt. It succeeds at world creation and the world it creates is one typically ignored in contemporary fiction, that is, rural working class Minnesota and the uneducated but smart people who live there. Big subjects (methamphetamine addiction, the dismal state of Native Americans) are touched upon obliquely, but make their mark. Many three dimensional characters are found here, though the men seem sketched the weakest, especially the boyfriends.  The "happy" ending, however, felt a little forced, like a pretty ribbon on a festering scar.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, Part II

I have read this book so many times since I was a kid that reading it now was like taking a tour bus through a well known city. First stop, The Red Room. Second Stop: Helen Burns’ Deathbed. Third Stop: Mr. Rochester Falling Off His Horse. No surprises yet the narrative was completely absorbing. (Apparently that’s what they mean by masterpiece.) There’s something primal about the larger than life characters and there’s something primal about the setting, both appealing to something just beneath our logical mind.

I had forgotten how shocking, how full of “adult content” Jane Eyre is. Jane never denies her love for the married man, though she rejects living with him.  This time, I saw the “Come away with me, Jane” scene as a real conflict. She almost goes with him to France, obliterating her position in society, not so much because it will make her happy, but because she’s afraid Rochester’s going to kill himself, or worse yet, lead a life of meaningless carousing. She and Rochester consider seriously the point that she has no relative to offend by living with him. (Which was a key plot point of Pride and Prejudice)

At times it seems like this novel is a brief in favor of no fault divorce, and it’s humorous how quickly she hightails it to Ferndean once she finds out Bertha jumped off the battlements and is permanently out of the picture.

This time, for me, the ”Come away with me to India” scene, had conflict as well. She likes it when Mr. Rochester bosses her around, because he loves the real Jane, the passionate contrary Jane, but she recognizes that her obedience to St. John’s bossiness would take a level of self control that would kill her. He’s no fan of the real Jane. He, like practically every other element in this novel, wants to suppress the real Jane.

My only quibble with the plot is Grace Poole conveniently being an alcoholic. Mr. Rochester apparently wants to take good care of his wife, but then he hires somebody who would get fired in about 2 weeks. I mean, how many times does Bertha steal the keys – seven or eight times?

I’ve almost talked myself into reading it again.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte, Part I

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

A series of humiliations lead to an orgasm of happiness

This is the second book in my project of Rereading the Classics and this novel inspired so many thoughts in me, I must break them into two weekly chunks. Here’s Part One.

I found this book under the Christmas tree when I was seven years old and for many years after that I only read and reread on the Gateshead and Lowood parts, the passionate little girl imprisoned by the rules part. I didn’t really understand Mr. Rochester and I found (and I think most people do) St. John Rivers to be an intolerable priss. I couldn’t understand at all why Jane would even contemplate his proposal.

Over the years, I have read Jane Eyre several times, and while loving it, found the novel ultimately deeply flawed because for me the story fell apart at the end because of the ridiculousness of the plot. This time I approached it without any preconceived ideas about realism. In no way is the final third of the book realistic – in fact the entire novel is a fairy tale wish fulfillment that was completely satisfying.

The passionate characters play out their memorable scenes against gigantic backdrops – the settings are almost as important as the characters. Jane and Rochester meet at twilight on the moor, each thinking the other a supernatural creature. Like Elizabeth and Darcy they immediately “go at it”. With dialogue that is. The man with direct questioning, the woman responding like a sybll. After Jane saves him from a burning bed, they both realize they are in love.  

Thornfield is a house filled with several varieties of womanhood – the flirtatious little girl, the calm elderly housekeeper. The madwoman in the attic. And Jane, the sensible helper. What will she chose? What role will she play?

Next week, Part II

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Her First American by Lore Segal

A greenhorn encounters America

Someone recommended this, saying I would like it. She was a little wrong as I loved it. The story is at once a sweet reminiscence of an earlier time and, at the same time, a terribly ambitious analysis of America in the 1950's. It’s a comic novel about the Holocaust and U.S. race relations. It succeeds, I think, because these tragic issues are described on the slant. The important things – the destroyed lives in the wake of Nazism,the interracial love dynamics, the subordinate position of blacks in American society, the beginning and the end of the love affair, are never addressed head on. Therefore the immensity of the tragic issues doesn’t overwhelm the writing and sentimentality is avoided. But the reader can feel and clearly understand the emotional consequences of history on people’s lives, even as the reader is laughing at the heroine's comic misunderstandings.

Our immigrant young heroine, Ilka Weissnix, is 21, determined to make a life for herself in a new country. Something happened back there in Vienna - it’s never fully addressed, but she is always expressing her envy/approval of American family groups, American friendship groups. People who have histories.

In a wonderful scene out West, she meets Carter Bayoux. The reader knows he’s black, but Ilka doesn’t until several chapters in. He introduces her to America, and to herself. He’s an intellectual with a drinking problem and a despair problem (and it seems also a woman problem), taking frequent trips to the “bughouse” and drinking bottles of bourbon and talking talking talking. He’s awful, completely unsuitable for Ilka, and wonderful at the same time.

Ilka’s mother is missing, which creates great sympathy among the Americans, who are almost uniformly depicted sympathetically. And the character of the cousin Fishgoppel who is her benefactor is wonderfully done. The scene where Ilka and her mother return to Vienna at the very end of the novel is truly heartbreaking and funny at the same time.

The dialogue is amazing and really brings the characters to life. Bucky Bailey’s call in radio show would drive anyone mad. The most interesting and sustained scene is the summer rental in Connecticut with the four couples. A tour de force.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Cleaning Nabokov's House by Leslie Daniels

Opening a whorehouse builds confidence

This is a comic novel about Barb Barrett, a beaten down woman who has a mild nervous breakdown when her husband scolds her one too many times about how to load the dishwasher. Somewhat implausibly, she loses everything, including custody of her beloved children. “Somewhat implausibly” could be the watchword of the entire book, even though I enjoyed this novel greatly, held together as it was by Barb’s appealing first person narration. The book is genuinely funny and consistently engaging.

It’s about a woman finding herself, regaining her dignity and losing her passivity. The biggest problem, however, is the whimsical bifurcated plot. The story starts moving from its piteous though funny beginning once Barb rents Nabokov’s house, and reaches into a drawer to find -- a novel handwritten on index cards. And our mystery begins. Or does it? Publishing a lost Nabokov novel seems to be what the story is about, but rather quickly that doesn’t pan out so Barb effortlessly switches (though maybe not the reader) to the whorehouse with male whores idea.  Women flock to the house, somewhat implausibly,in this conservative upstate town.

Barb’s adventures are definitely quirky, though the love interest, the ex-husband and even the kids are a little too unsurprising. The minor characters, however, are completely original. Also, the idea that perhaps a whorehouse is not like a nail salon, and may have seriously corrosive effects on the marriages of its patrons, is completely glided over.

I really enjoyed it.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

The Cookbook Collecter by Allegra Goodman

What is wealth?

This was a disappointment, even more so because I sensed the broken columns of a truly satisfying novel littering these pages. I admire the ambition to write about 9/11 and the dot com bust and the real estate bust and the recently evolving roles of husband and wife. The problem was that our two sister heroines, Emily and Jess Bach, one an ambitious gogetter, one a dreamy philosopher, are thoroughly nice inside, noble in fact, and nice and noble, absenting any internal conflict, lacks dramatic tension and is boring. Also, I was a little bothered that the privilege of these elite people did not warrant comment. Who lives like this? Who lives like this and never questions their good luck?

The last 75 percent of the book was a chore to read as I didn’t care about the main characters and there were pages and pages, like Freedom  or that Lionel Shriver bookwhere characters just kept talking about current events or software like it was an endless episode of Meet the Press.

I don’t want to go on about the problems – among which is that the cookbooks only show up in the middle and the intriguing cookbook collector himself is far too underutilized. The East Coast West Coast Orthodox family was another fruitful sidetrack that bore exploring.

There is some very nice writing here and an excellent scene of some environmentalists saving a redwood and our girl Jess up there in the top of the tree with a fear of heights. Now that’s conflict!

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Going Down by Jennifer Belle

Always something to laugh at when you’re a hooker in the big city

 A friend of mine suggested I read this and I like her too much to say, Don't you know I don't read genre novels? But this wasn’t a cliché genre novel – this was a assortment of flash fiction about a young New Yorker, Bennington Bloom, who blithely gets a job as a prostitute, and her adventures in the absurdity of New York. Much of it was hilarious. The hooker set up is just that, merely a hook to hang an assortment of sharply well written little scenes. Most of the stories don’t really have to do with prostitution. A true novel about prostitution needs to address the unbridgeable gulf between the sexes or the amoral capitalistic ethos or what is the deal with that Madonna/whore thing. I’m not sure that this book does. What I learned was – wow the receptionists in brothels are real bitches.

So the book I read last week was about a nineteen year old who can’t stop herself from letting people know she’s smarter than they are. Bennington Bloom has the same problem. She’s a girl rejected by her father and decides, without a lot of reflection, to join an escort service in order to pay for her sophomore year at NYU. Because the novel is episodic, the reader does not get a sense of any tension building, but is still entertained by the sprightly sarcastic prose . Near the end of the book, a boyfriend is injected so we get some conflict otherwise there seems no reason why Bennington could not have continued sex work. Apart from the police raids.

 The epigraph from Alice in Wonderland is fitting but I think Alice cogitates a bit more on her situation. All this same, this was a very enjoyable read.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Second chances are wonderful.

This is the first book in my project of Rereading the Classics.

This novel is a machine of ingenious plotting . Nothing is wasted -- not a sneeze or ribbon purchase. Carriages are always pulling up and gossipy people excitedly disembarking, moving the story along.

The impetus to the plot is that Bennet sisters need husbands. And, Mrs. Bennet, their ignorant pushy lively mother, is both the strongest force for this, as well as one of the strongest obstacles. At least she always understands what’s at stake.

The book is a serious of scenes and locations in which our hero Mr. Darcy and our heroine Elizabeth, who have a bad first meeting, are constantly thrown into contact with each other. The plot is woven so skillfully into the story that the reader doesn’t question why three men, Mr. Bingley, Mr. Collins and Mr. Wickham, who are all connected to Mr. Darcy, then become intimately connected with Elizabeth, do not know each other. Mr. Bingley introduces her to him, Mr. Collins provides an opportunity to meet him again, and Mr. Wickham gives Darcy the chance to do Elizabeth a really huge favor.

The characterization is also perfect, leaking down to every minor character. The dialogue fleshes out the characters, for there really is not any description. If Jane Austen were alive today, she’d be writing for television.

Darcy thinks he’s better than everybody else and Elizabeth is too eager to let everybody know she thinks they’re absurd. These weaknesses are the flip side of their strengths.

The place names are great, Longbourn, Meryton, Netherfield Park, Rosings and them of course, the pinnacle, Pemberley. I think if you read a hundred throwaway romance books, you would recognize the connections to this book.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Radiance by Louis B Jones

How should one behave?

I really loved this novel. I picked it up, thinking at first it was a satire on consumerist America, Hollywood in particular, but then the book sneakily transformed itself into a meditation on how to lead a worthwhile life. That is, the themes and questions deepened to universal ones while the story remained entertaining. What is the foundation of happiness?  What are the proper actions of a responsible person?

It’s about Mark Perdue, a Lyme brain fogged physicist, in LA for the weekend with daughter Carlotta for her fantasy rock weekend. (That’s the satire). His wife has withdrawn from everyone, re-evaluating her life, quitting her high powered job and picking up trash by the side of the road after the family made a decision to terminate a severely disabled fetus. How long can her depression go on?  Meanwhile, Mark senses a soulmate in the younger Blythe, the woman assigned for the weekend to be his daughter’s “handler”.

The book is also about how a man looks at a woman, and feels guilty about desire, yet also feels completely under its power. Why shouldn’t a man take what he wants? What the woman wants? Mark’s dilemma with Blythe is set against his unease with his daughter’s increasing intimacy with the charismatic Bodie, the godlike paraplegic teen whose midnight desire to see the Hollywood sign lands them all in jail.

Overall, a very satisfying novel.  Amazing.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

Humans are blindly destroying the earth; meanwhile, look into my eyes and tell me that you love me!

This book turned out to be a big disappointment for me, partly, I think, because I loved The Corrections so much. The experience of that book was like opening a treasure chest full of gold and love and being awed and elevated by the artistry. Freedom had a terrific opening that dragged me right in, but rather quickly soon after I was thinking, why won’t this woman shut up!

Maybe the disappointment gets back to what is the purpose of a novel - my preference is purely aesthetic, but others may think differently – perhaps the novel has a social/political purpose. Someone should call attention to overpopulation, the corruption of the Iraq war, rampant materialism, the housing bubble, mountain top removal mining, and feline destruction of song birds,shouldn't they? Is it asking too much to entertain the reader?

The main characters are Patty and Walter Berglund who are liberal do gooders living a wholesome life in St Paul. Patty’s a little overattached to her older bratty son Joey, that’s all and she's always had a thing for a footloose family friend, Richard. He doesn’t like to be tied down the way Walter does. Patty slips deeper into a funk over her wasted life while Walter falls for a young co worker, full of life and oddly enough, extremely pretty.

There’s a whiff of misogyny about the proceedings (although Franzen is genuinely interested in the female characters – they take up most of the space). The most sympathetic character is a young woman who never criticizes, mere acquiesces. You feel there is something broken with her intellect, like a Minnesota autism. But she is Love and until Patty figures out how to behave like her, and nearly freeze to death in her devotion to her man, she will never find true happiness.

The final section of the book is all about cranks talking and cranks fucking and was difficult to plow through. Ginned up rhetoric cannot make the characters fly.

I admire the ambition and the sense of writing an “important” novel. But it helps to bring the emotions along for the ride. I probably would have liked this better if I hadn’t read the Corrections first.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Re-reading the Classics

Over the next several months I have decided to read, ten classic novels. And by classics, I mean, time tested works that critics generally agree have an ambitious scope and successfully execute upon that scope.

I feel like that because I’ve been reading a lot of novels that have been written in the past two years or so, I’ve been reading a certain amount of mediocre work which has made me wonder about and hunger for true greatness. What distinguishes the classic novels that have lasted a century from a run of the mill literary novel? Novels today are modest and modestly fail. Or maybe it has always been that way.

Also, I read most of my “classics” between the ages of 15 and 17. Now that I am nearly 50, I wonder if I understood anything. Now is be a good time to revisit. And finally, a mysterious box of classic novels was left on my husband’s loading dock. Well, you like to read, he said, want these?

Here’s my ten:

Pride and Prejudice: I actually read this every year – it’s like going to San Francisco – you never get sick of it. Perfectly plotted.

Jane Eyre: My first grown up book. I also reread this one a lot. Deeply flawed and deeply interesting.

Huckleberry Finn: The great American novel.

 Moby Dick: A literary compendium

The Sound and The Fury: I’m not sure this will hold up under scrutiny.

Middlemarch: Dutifully plowed through this at age 16. Today I believe I will appreciate it much more.

Lolita: I have very high expectations for this one. I love beautiful prose.

Madame Bovary: How I wish I could read French! The sentences are supposed to be the most pleasure.

Brothers Karamazov: I expect passion and grappling with life.

 War and Peace: Why not?

Let's see what I learn.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

The Feast of Love by Charles Baxter

People reflect upon their loves one summer night in Ann Arbor

I have mixed feelings about this book.  The discovery that the narrator in this novel by Charles Baxter was a writer named Charles Baxter set my teeth on edge.  Ok, I thought, this better be very very good.  And it was good.  But good enough to put up with that.

First of all, this is not really a novel.   A novel is a journey  --  it’s the construction of an Aztec pyramid stone by stone so at the top your heart can be ripped out.   A novel is plotted.  A novel has a vast scale.  The Feast of Love is a collection of linked short stories.  The umbrella story is about a poor schlub who marries an impossible women and lives beside a tragic couple and employs another tragic couple at his coffee shop.   Luckily at the end, he finds love in the person of a saint like black doctor who apparently was waiting all her life for a Caucausian schlub to come along.

The subject matter and maybe even the prose style reminded me of a Midwestern Amy Bloom (although maybe Baxter tries to encompass more than one social class).  Beautiful prose.  Their subject is Love or Love and Sex.  The crazy cruel things the yearnings of love makes people do.  In this book, however, there’s a happy ending for everyone.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman

Even in a dying industry, workers feel reverence for their duties

This is a sweet though uneven short story collection, however, it feels rather bogus to market this as a novel.  The book is about different employees at a boutique English language newspaper in Rome and how they struggle with betrayals, of fate, of love, of parenthood.  The stories are best when they are about human foibles, about people believing what they want to believe, no matter what.  I learned the most from the eccentrics.  The worst story was the one set in Egypt with a perfectly ridiculous blowhard character.  The best and most complex stories were in the first half, I think.

I was consistently interested in the characters, never bored.   All the characters are wrapped up in their own issues, never realizing this job, which means so much to all of them, is disappearing. This was an easy read.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

The Given Day by Dennis Lehane

Boston, 1918, Molasses, anarchists, Babe Ruth and a police strike

I admired the ambitious scope and the implicit commentary on America. I also liked the comparison to terrorism then and terrorism now. A novel should aspire to this sort of serious viewpoint. However, a grand scope requires lots of characters from different levels of society. And I think the fatal flaw of this novel, the flaw that made reading the last fifth a real chore was the flimsy characterization of everybody except Babe Ruth. And Babe Ruth only glancingly interacts with our two main characters – once at the beginning and once at the end. Otherwise, in his interludes he’s an interesting but very passive onlooker, kind of goofy, and not really interested in the theme of this novel, which are, I think, family loyalties.

This is a plot driven story so the characters are like tiny metal cogs in a massive machine, with no range of movement and absolutely no surprises. All the frenetic shooting/bombing at climax left me cold because I had no emotional investment in these robots.  The main character is Aiden, favored son of a Boston Police official. Will he betray his family? It’s also about Luther, black man and saint, on the run from a botched murder.

In the divide between literary novels and genre novels, this one clearly was genre, although the descriptions were well done. I’m disappointed as the setting was perfect as so many important things were happening. And there were tons of conflict.

Finally, the novel is set in 1918 and in 1918 most people held certain racist and sexist attitudes – it seems a stretch to make those characters who were “of their time” extra evil because they subscribed to those attitudes.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Father of the Rain by Lily King

A grown daughter tries to save her alcoholic father

Once again, this book made me wonder about the distinction between genre fiction and literary fiction. This particular novel was a compelling read, hard to put down. (I read it at the beach no less). The story stirred my emotions. And yet – the plot took some facile unmotivated twists, nudging it, I think, towards genre fiction. An undeserved happy ending. An unrealistically sympathetic husband.

Father of the Rain falls into Roxana Robinson territory – repressed WASP porn, I guess. The main conflict (the loved one must confront the addict) follows that of Robinson’s Cost. Yet the decisions made by the mother in Cost are inevitable and devastating and believable. Here the decisions made by the daughter (who is not in the same power position as the mother) don’t seem completely motivated – she throws her professional and romantic life away, much too quickly, without reservations, to save someone who clearly can’t be saved.

It’s about Daley Amory, sensitive shy girl with a real prick of a father who drinks too much and is sexually inappropriate (that is almost the most interesting part of the novel because he never crosses the line – he just does whatever he wants to do). The father, Gardiner, is presented as a privileged man out of touch with the new diverse society – but he doesn’t feel quite real, although he’s full of evil energy and speaks his mind. He can’t accept the fact that the world has changed.

The novel is divided into three parts.  Childhood is the first section, which I like, and then the time when Daley is about to embark on her adult life, which is the meat of the book, and then the conclusion where she’s got her shit together and all the fairytale elements apart from Dad are there.

Nice clean prose. The scenes were very effective, especially the scene when Daley visits her father after her parents' separation only to find another woman and family moved in her house. We also get a glimpse of the rest of this seaside town, and the other WASPy characters who live there and grow older with have successful lives or not. There’s even a lot of debate as to whether Gardiner is truly a drunk or not. Are you one if everyone else at the country club is stumbling around?

Monday, July 4, 2011

Everybody Loves Somebody by Joanna Scott

Things always work out in the end, don’t they?

I really didn’t get this book of short stories.  I hated the first five, loved the fourth, thought the long one was very interesting and provocative, then back to the hating.  Overall, I had problems with the flippant tone and believed in many cases the stories were a waste of beautiful prose.  I mean, shouldn’t fiction speak to the heart – what’s the point of solely an intellectual connection?  Art is the depiction of emotion, isn’t it?  Why else bother?

The writing is vivid and descriptive, begging to be read aloud.  A multiplicity of characters – a high energy level.   I found the abstract words offputting and distancing.  Obviously I didn’t get the point.  The relentless happy endings were painted on like a clown’s smile.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Peace by Richard Bausch

Three GI’s wonder if war is worth it

This short novel about World War II sucked me in immediately.  There are some great scenes, really great, (I cried when the solider left home), interspersed with long passages of boredom.  Why?  The nominal plot is three GI’s climbing a snowy mountain, pursued by a faceless sniper.  The prose style is kind of Old Man and the Seaish (which works).  The secondary plot, the moral plot, is the three GI’s discussing whether they should turn in their commanding officer for a war crime, which had been depicted in the first scene.  Part of my problem was that I didn’t understand that the first scene depicted a war crime until we were well into the book.  To me it seemed like another unavoidable bad thing happening during a war.  And if I, a Hollywood Hills liberal Democrat, didn’t think the first scene depicted a war crime, I have a hard time believing the three young kids in wartime getting shot at would make that distinction.  A panicky action in the heat of battle is not a war crime.   So the stakes weren’t there for me.   Surely these guys would be more concerned about the sniper killing them than debating moral permutations.   Partly the cause of my boredom were that the characters of the three GI's and their elderly Italian guide felt straight out of central casting.  The bigoted hick, the Jewish guy from Brooklyn, the noble American, the shifty old Italian.  The narrative consciousness is that of the noble American, the good Catholic.  But here we have the problem of the essentially uninteresting nature of inherent goodness, rather than the tension of striving for goodness.  So the stakes weren't there.  The final scene stretches credulity and ends in a welter of sonorous though ultimately meaningless words

This would have made a pretty powerful short story.  Instead it turned into a short novel, flabbed up with rhetoric.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Devil In A Blue Dress by Walter Mosley

In 1940’s LA, a workingman’s search for a missing woman is interrupted by a number of murders

I read a short story by Walter Mosley in the latest Tin House and it was really good which inspired me to pick this book up. I was a little disappointed as the novel was more like a typical apprentice like detective novel although with a unique setting.Mosley's most famous character, Easy Rawlins, a careful, quiet narrator/detective, is introduced. The writing was spare, well crafted and Mosley has a facility for expressing emotions without dialogue, with gestures and movements. It just wasn’t as original and surprising as the short story.

The plot felt kind of cliché, but it was a very easy read. The setting is unique. African Americans from Houston in LA. The woman who is the devil with a blue dress doesn’t feel quite real, (or quite motivated) although all the male characters do. They are perverse and full of eccentric life. I also like the way the book quietly comments on a lot of larger issues, such as racism, police brutality, the movement of poor black southerners to industrial cities, how men treat women, and alcoholism.

What makes me want to continue reading the series is the relationship between laid back Easy and his amoral friend Mouse. Maybe put together they will make up a complete man. Who is worthy of redemption? Maybe Easy Rawlins, maybe not.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

My New American Life by Francine Prose

A young Albanian immigrant cannot believe these crazy Americans, their optimism and their luck

This novel is the story of the first person Albanian narrator, Zula, acerbic and hopeful, as she tries to figure out America and get what she needs.  It reminded me very much of Rose Tremain’s novel The Road Home, which was also a novel about Eastern Europeans illegally immigrating to a trendy Western capital, but this book is less artistically realized, more winking, a satire instead of Tremain’s deeply felt character study. Here, the colorful Albanians are contrasted with the earnest do-gooding rich Americans, Zeke and Mister Stanley and crazy Ginger and the wonderfully vivid Don Settebello. He was the only character that really felt alive, even more so than Zula.

The novel felt a little overplotted but undercharacterized with an overreliance on overdone characters, such as the monosyllabic teen, the Albanian goons– nobody here surprises the reader but plays true to type.

The writing was very good with sprightly descriptive sentences, and very well constructed scenes. Finally, it’s legitimately funny. The novel zips right along and is a pleasant read as it quietly comments on the US government’s policy in Guantanamo, the public’s fear of Muslims, American ignorance and innocence, suburbia, school shootings, avaricious women (of which Lula can’t quite bring herself to be.)

The climactic scene isn’t really earned (though almost). The end works, I think, unsettling, a bit scary,but things always work out ok for our kooky heroine. In America!

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Tunneling to the Center of the Earth by Kevin Wilson

Quiet characters can’t quite figure out how they are supposed to fit into this apparently well ordered world

This book of short stories was original, a pleasure to read. The author approached each story differently, with maybe only the weirdness (and perhaps a certain sort of repressed pissedoffedness) a constant. And prose that could cut glass. The writing was quite beautiful, but only rarely did I feel we had drilled down to boiling emotion.   Perhaps I am a sentimentalist? Maybe it’s because I’m not sure if dream like surrealism is my cup of tea.

My favorite stories were Birds in the House and Go Fight Win. These were family stories, of which there are a few in here. The family stories resonated more with me.  The other clump of stories in the book were young people trying to connect.

One further note - at the end the author discusses each story and how it relates to an earlier story he read. I didn't like this - it implied that instead of the inspiration for the stories coming from this world or the recesses of the author's soul , the inspiration came from another story someone else had written, an apparently more superior story. First of all, I don't think that is the case. Secondly, it planted the thought in my head, then why am I wasting time reading your stories when there are eleven more superior stories out there? This gimmick must be working for I am going to check out the eleven stories referenced.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Le Divorce by Diane Johnson

A California and a French family clash when the children go through a divorce

The theme and the overarching plot of this novel is practically the same as "Persian Nights"; the clueless Americans parachuted into a polite bemused foreign culture, though Paris is not in such a state of crisis as pre revolutionary Tehran. I would say this book is expertly plotted, as a fast moving farce. The concluding set piece takes place, this time not at Persepolis but Euro Disney. That climax is followed quickly by a genuine tragedy.

I was a little timid about reading this, because I had so much loved Diane Johnson’s earlier black comedies and this is her most famous book, so I thought it might be sitcommy or sentimental, but no, the satire remains razor sharp, but communicated by a youthful exuberant compelling yet still ditzy first person narrator. I enjoyed reading her voice very much.

Isabel Walker, wealthy young Santa Barbaran, comes to Paris to help her older sister Roxeanne with child care. Only Roxeanne has a secret- her French husband has abandoned her. Reluctantly Roxeanne agrees to a divorce, French style. But there’s that matter of a two million dollar family painting she has gifted her faithless husband. The rest of the American family comes to Paris to investigate. In the meantime, Isabel, whose name echoes that of Isabel Archer, another expatriate dealing with unbreakable European traditions, grows very fond of Paris, its food, its fashion and its 70 year old politicians.

The energy and the comedy come from the culture clash between the two families. Many of the sentences were full of a love of language and a love of life. The plot elements, the Hermes bag, the painting of St Ursula, the glazed bowls, were inserted discreetly. Also, I really admired the way the dinner scenes with several characters were perfectly clear. And even though the story was nominally first person, there were plenty of glimpses into other characters’ heads, in other parts of the world.

I thought it was delightful.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

So Much For That by Lionel Shriver

Americans aren’t ready, financially and emotionally, when people die

I had mixed feelings about this novel. The set up was excruciating – I felt like my head was positioned between two clanging cymbals. Pages after pages of characters spouting polemics about the state of health care in America. Is this even a novel, I wondered? The only thing that kept me from quitting was that I didn’t want to quit a book two weeks in a row. So I stuck with it.

I’m glad I did. The novel is about Shep, a mild mannered millionaire (although a million dollars clearly means nothing nowadays) whose dilettantish wife Glynis gets cancer, destroying the frugal Shep’s dream of getting away from it all for a cheap Third World retirement. Shep, (who comes across like a doormat) spends his last dime fighting the incurable cancer (this action is not really motivated). All the while Glynis refuses to accept the fact she’s dying. Meanwhile’s Shep’s dad needs nursing home care, and family friend Flicka has an incurable genetic disease. The moral and financial dilemmas of each situation are explored quite effectively.  I actually learned quite a bit about health care.

In a way this novel reminded me of Larry’s Party by Carol Shields, in terms of the not so macho main character, although that story was executed with much more artistry.  It is also in the tradition of Upton Sinclair (not that I've ever read any Upton Sinclair).  A novel addressing a social problem - that of unfair and inefficient health care.

In the last third of the book, the story got much more compelling as we left off the sloganeering and the author turned her attention towards the family and the sensitive portrayal of Glynis’s death. One of the themes was our society's abandonment of the sick and dying. It made me resolve to be more diligent about keeping in touch with the ill.  So perhaps this novel achieved its moral purpose as well.

Was the painful setup worth the beautiful end? I am undecided whether I will ever read a Lionel Shriver novel again. If I do it won't be for a long time.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet by David Mitchell

In 1800, a Dutch man encounters the closed Japanese society.

This novel is about Jacob De Zoet, exiled to the Dutch colony off Japan in order to make a fortune. His fortune making is interrupted by his fascination with the scarred young Japanese woman learning to be a midwife. Therefore, I suppose this is a historical novel, so in addition to the pleasure of the story, we will also learn something about Japanese history.

I seriously considered bailing on around page 50, did so on page 90. Part of it may have been my American addiction to dramatic tension, and part of it may have been that it was taking too terribly long to to set up the story. Although I felt we were headed in the right direction, with the vivid introduction of the two lovers in two wonderfully written set pieces. But then we got pages and pages and pages of hundreds of characters speaking in a sprightly manner about things expository or bills of lading. I just was not keeping track of anyone of them and only wanted to get back to the lovers, though Jacob seemed a milquetoast.

To me, it was like watching stick figures placed on a diorama.  Zzz.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Eight White Nights by Andre Aciman

An overarticulate young man and overarticulate young woman discover they are soul mates.

I liked this book much more than  "Call Me By Your Name", even though this book was probably twice as annoying. Once again, the stakes are too low, the narrator is a question mark, the girl, the love object, is highly precious and an emotional sadist. Don't these kids have jobs? Clara is sketchily described as beautiful but all she eats are massive mounds of muffins and French fries. But I just couldn’t put the book down. The subject is romantic love.

The first twenty pages were difficult to get through, but then I relaxed and let the exquisite sentences wash over me. Our narrator is a nervous Nellie who is so terrified of screwing things up he never advances. This story is not so much about sex, in fact it’s not about sex at all – it’s about recognizing your soul mate. Clara and her Prinz Oskar, highly educated New Yorkers, enjoying themselves in modern day Manhattan. Because of the tragedy of Nazism long ago, these two are exiles from their true home of Europe.

Is love a delusion? What is the evolutionary purpose of romantic love? Clara becomes an obsession with him and he with her. And sometimes the novel degenerates into a fascinating study of telephone tag.

This was one I read on the plane so I had more patience, perhaps more patience than this deserved. I was really entranced.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Trespass by Rose Tremain

Trespassing has severe consequences

This was such a well constructed novel. I felt like I was in the hands of a master. The story is a puzzle, with mirrored characters and circumstances, and concerns two brother sister pairs, coming to the end of their lives, in the drought stricken south of France.

The English pair is Anthony and Veronica Verey; the French pair Aramon and Audrun Lunel. The French pair are certifiable, the English pair merely eccentric. The plot is that the rich Anthony, who has decided to leave his faltering antiques business, wishes to settle near his sister and her lover in the south of France. He would like to buy the Lunel’s house, or mas, but it seems that there is a family feud about ownership of the French property. Also, Veronica’s lover is not happy to see Anthony arrive.

An air of creepiness hangs over the story, established by the child’s scream at the end of the first chapter. The novel is not just about property disputes and surveyors lines and guests who stay too long – it’s about horrible crimes of omission and commission against innocent children. One technique was to reveal a memory and throughout the course of the novel return to that memory until the reader understands its full terrible scope.

What was humorous to me was how easily these supposedly dried up old women felt into murderous fantasies. Or murderous realities.

And finally, the prose was simple, beautiful and poetic.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Lord of Misrule by Jaimy Gordon

Four horse races and their stakes

This is all about the dialogue. A no doubt about it American dialogue. This novel reminds me of two I’ve read recently – Fat City by Leonard Gardner and Galveston by Nic Pizzolato.  Fat City because of its plunge into the life of a bunch of losers soldiering on only through their love of a dirty sport, and Galveston because of its hard eyed view of American losers, though I think Galveston had, in retrospect, a phony marshmallow heart and Lord of Misrule has a legitimate heart.

The prose was ornate and hard and poetic and enjoyable to read. The only problem was that about 15% of the time the explaining got over convoluted and I had to go back and reread to figure out what was going on. But when the prose was good it was very very good.

The characters were extremely colorful losers and racetrack hangers on - a shared sense of fate, and luck and a sacred love of horses. The plotting was seamless, but then sort of fell apart and the book ended like an episode of Charlie’s Angels from 1976.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Health and Happiness by Diane Johnson

Doctors are only human

A hospital is its own little world, filled with greed or lust or petty malice. At the same time, hospitals and Western medicine are pinnacles of our civilization because they halt death and restore patients to life.   Sort of like Jesus.  A hospital can also kill patients, which is one of the subplots in this novel. Once again, as I read my way through her collected fiction, I was very impressed by Diane Johnson's world creation skills.

The story begins a little stiffly, then I was immediately sucked in. The major characters are Philip Watts, senior professor of medicine, an excellent thoughtful doctor, though also something of a goody two shoes martinet; Ivy Tarro, a slightly dippy flower child who comes to the hospital with a minor ailment and is almost killed; and Mimi Franklin, the slightly pitiful divorcee who is head of Volunteers.

This book is as elaborately plotted and as filled with characters as a tv show’s bible - - and yet this is not cliché genre fiction – real things are happening inside the walls of this building. I think Diane Johnson’s approach is to use a comic vision to observe many things, including tragedies, such as the gifted young man with sickle cell anemia, the thoughtful old lady who is being kept alive by artificial measures, the brain dead meathead who overdosed on cocaine. Much of the book is not politically correct, but it’s inherently interesting. A glimpse into a San Francisco hospital is a look at the cultural mish mash that is America.

I learned something about modern medicine and something about plotting, the way the minor characters are used as plot points. Also there’s sort of a quiet political commentary on the high cost of health care, the inability of seemingly rational people to pull the plug on a near death loved one, and the hardly suppressed materialism of most doctors.  Excellent writing.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Girl Factory by Jim Krusoe

A nerd tries to rescue naked women held in suspended animation

My final conclusion is that this weird novel is subversive, though it started slowly with a boring chessplaying dog. The story got better once our very literal minded lonely hero Jonathan discovers the naked ladies suspended in giant tanks downstairs of the frozen yogurt shop where he clerks. Jonathan has had bad luck with women in the past – his two prior loves dropped him with zero explanation. And one of the tank ladies strongly resembles an old girlfriend. The plot then takes over and the story becomes gripping as Jonathan tries to figure out a way to revive the ladies. I don’t want to give away the surprise, but huge chunks consist of Jonathan dragging bodies to the Dumpster. And it is very funny, but you feel you shouldn’t laugh at dead women being tossed in the dumpster. That’s probably where the subversion comes in.

The story is set in the here and now except it’s really not. The world of Girl Factory is completely imagined but feels like a candy colored version of our own. I loved the dialogue, though overall I think this novel is not making a bold statement about American society, but a well crafted humorous statement about life extending machines in the basement of a suburban frozen yogurt shop.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

My Hollywood by Mona Simpson

Nannies and mommies are wary of each other in affluent West LA

I enjoyed this absorbing old fashioned novel addressing two traditional subjects – love and money. Not the love of a man  – but the love of a Baby. The novel is about Claire, a composer in her late thirties who is overwhelmed by caring for her infant, as well as baffled by her husband, who suddenly wants to change careers and coasts to become a comedy writer with ungodly work hours. They decide to hire a nanny and luckily end up with Lola, a fiftyish down to earth Filipina. The novel switches between their narrative voices. Lola has the much more powerful and distinctive voice. Claire is passive and sometimes you feel like she’s whining about being rich – but that’s part of the satire, I think. All of the American mothers depicted here come off as shallow materialistic commodities.

The world of wives and nannies are shown with small cutting little scenes – the two worlds are completely different. One group drives BMW’s, one takes endless bus lines. The nannies’ world is harrowing and tragic – and yet the women, all recent immigrants, really strive together and protect each other from the various degrees of exploitation. The American women are competitive about their producer husbands, mansions, kids and pools. (Pools play an important thematic and plot point.)

The book’s not perfect. If I was complaining last week about Philip Roth’s characterization of women, then I must point out the tissue thin characterization of men. These sex avoiding women aren't in thrall to their men the way they are to their babies – Guys only contribute $ and an X or Y chromosome. And the ending of the novel is rather dubious.

But overall a really valuable look at LA.  America need more novels like this.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Everyman by Philip Roth

An outraged old man building a case that aging and death are cruel and suffering void of redemption

A short slight book but packed with many vivid scenes and characters. Earthy angry writing. Elegiac, I suppose. The main character, nameless, Everyman, reviews the events of his life, including the lusty adventures of his youth, the selfish inevitable family decisions he made in pursuit of this lust and the detailed almost hypochondriacally retelling of his many illnesses since. Sex is finished now, kaput, but what if you have based the meaning of your life on your prick? That means it’s time to die.

This didn’t hook me though as other Roth novels have. Perhaps I’m not old enough. Or perhaps the plot is too flimsy and familiar. There’s rage, but the rage lacks a platform. The egomania grew wearying, although I liked the bizarre formal interviews: the phone calls to the bereaved and deeply depressed and dying, the stagy earnest discussions with grave diggers, the memory of a devoted wife’s angry speech when throwing him out on his ass.

The women come in two flavors—self sacrificing saints and unkempt whores. I have known many women in my life, but am pretty sure I’ve never met any women like these. It’s a structural flaw, I think.

Is there regret here? Should there be regret here? The final beautiful paragraph turns us to the present moment and to life – linking childhood, the planet Earth and the unexpectedness of death.