Sunday, January 30, 2011

Elegy for a Fabulous World by Alta Ifland

A representative from the Old Country, with its big lies and deprivations and bloody history, comes to abundant Pepsodent smiling America.

These short stories are about memory, a look back to childhood, as well as to a tragic folkloric Eastern Europe about to be buried in a crass avalanche of consumerism. I’m not sure what the elegy is for- childhood, or Communism or Europe, or the small town claustrophobic village life. Or for an impossible mother. Or all four perhaps. The humor and the tragedy come from the tension between the innocent child, who doesn’t know any better, and then the slow realization these people in this country got the short sharp end of history’s stick. Lots of humor in the writing, but also lots of restrained anger. I really enjoyed these stories. Magical things happen, but it feels normal because it’s Eastern Europe. It feels normal.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Where The God of Love Hangs Out by Amy Bloom

Despite the inevitable pain of loss, people are drawn to the comforts of love

These short stories are all about the voice, which is very vivid and lively. Amy Bloom is a beautiful prose stylist. Every paragraph is its own short story, larded with imagery, a miniflashback. As a result, the characters are fully rounded, breathing, bleeding. The subject is love and its corollary, death, which at times seems trite but all the characters take love so seriously. They take life seriously. Love is imaginary until you are afflicted by it then it feels biological, bringing insight. However, is it the proper subject for a serious author?

The structure is a little unusual – these are short stories, but with two large lumps of linked short stories. I liked the first one – the one about the couple in their fifties who run off together better than the second one, the one about the jazz singer, which felt like a sketched in novel.

Set In Motion by Valerie Martin

Beset by strange obsessive men, a young woman makes her way around New Orleans.

I am trying to read all of  Valerie Martin’s novels. This one is her first. It feels a little over designed as it is a study of three couples and perhaps two couples would have been manageable. The men are all obsessed with the narrator, a young woman who works at a welfare office. These men are all irretrievably fucked up if not certifiable and therefore the sanity of the women who stick with them is also questionable, but I think that the point. The last part of the book pretty much fell apart as it relied heavily on the journals of a madman. The journals of the madman were difficult to read.

Mostly I am interested in how Valerie Martin created those later roller coaster rides Mary Reilly and Property (in knee breeches and corsets). I also deeply admired Trespass which is more openended. Set in Motion is so openended to be completely breezy, but certain themes return – the casual sex, the woman who wants to be dominated, the sufferings of black folk, and the supernatural aspect.

One more novel to go but I believe someone swiped it from the LAPL stacks.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Wolf A False Memoir by Jim Harrison

A talkative guy reminiscences about his adventures in America while following a wolf through a Michigan woods

I didn’t mean to read this immediately after Leonard Gardner’s Fat City, but now I see these books are very similar. The fruit picking, the drunkenness, the hitchhiking, the compelling soggy bog of femininity, the sixties. However, Fat City is a real novel, carefully structured with a Chekhovian interest in recounting what society does to human souls. Reading Wolf was like sitting next to a fascinating drunk and having him go on and on and on. The sentences were juicy and captivating but I didn’t get any special insight into the human condition. Also, there’s a whiff of datedness about this and an even bigger whiff of egomania – like, Groovy hippie chicks dug balling me.

Definitely echoes of On the Road, definitely echoes of Hemingway. The struggle is with Nature and masculinity.  But where is the emotional truth?

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Fat City by Leonard Gardner

I get knocked down but I get up again

My heart sank a few pages in – O jeez a bunch of hapless mooks stumbling around Stockton. Was this to be a joyless slog? Luckily the book seemed short. Then I was completely sucked into the vivid scenes – our two trapped dumdums, Billy and Ernie, and their adventures fruit picking, boxing, fucking and in Billy’s case, going on benders. What’s really marvelous is that we “get” Stockton – that very gritty city – a major port in the middle of farm fields, a racial mosaic. Gardner is like Penelope Fitzgerald in that numerous characters are distinctly delineated, mostly with dialogue. And unlike Fitzgerald, these characters come from all over the world. White, black, mulatto, Mexican, Oaxacan, Chinese and Filipino. The situations and the characters felt very true.

Men are men here and women are manipulative and irresistible and for sure will derail your life. This book is set in the sixties and feels so different from the fiction written by men nowadays with their castrating exasperated career women.

A quick compelling read but after the final paragraph I felt a little like I wanted to blow my head off. Surely Gardner could have left us with a flicker of hope? Or maybe given one of the mooks a puppy?

Sunday, January 2, 2011

The Colony by Jillian Weise

What is the cost of conformity?

I’ve been very lucky! Three great novels in a row! This one is stands out because it’s bold –it asks big uncomfortable questions about technology and ethics– it’s not patting the reader on the back for being morally superior. At the same time, (and I think this is meant to be a joke) a major plot mechanism seems to be, Will he/won’t he ask me on a date? And, how does my hair look? The narrator is Anne Hatley, who was born with one leg because of a genetic mutation. The scientists pay her five grand a month to study her genes and automatically assume she desires gene therapy, that she would want to grow a new leg or at least have a child with two legs. Underlying the stories is the narrator’s question or struggle – is there something wrong with me? Is there something wrong with only having one leg? Wrong enough to spend a fortune and a life’s career on genetic procedures to eliminate one legged people for all time?

The framework of this novel is realistic, almost like a present day documentary though many “science fictiony” things happen. The writing is consistently sharp and insightful, not overly fancy.

The end felt a little bit rushed, although the story lands on its target. The experiment goes awry. Smart scientists actually don’t know what they were doing – although we never got the sense in this novel that they did. The most poignant part for me was that the narrator was in love with a chubby old married man – partly because he was the only one who never mentioned her one leggedness – then it turns out he was very conscious of it. I learned that maybe different people don’t feel so different.