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.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Rescue by Anita Shreve

A poor sap keeps rescuing people, especially pretty young women

I am a huge Anita Shreve fan for two reasons – she’s a good story teller, an efficient scene constructer and an amazing prose stylist. Rescue has an engrossing story, but no prose styling, alas (maybe as beautiful prose requires sweating blood and producing a novel a year precludes that). Overall, as I half expected, this book was a disappointment. It’s about Webster, an uneducated ambulance driver who becomes responsible after having to raise an unplanned child, his alcoholic wife Sheila orgasming with guilt over drinking and abandoning their child. She disappears. Fourteen years later, when daughter Rowan suddenly starts drinking to oblivion, he goes to find Sheila. (This last part is really not motivated – not the daughter’s drinking, not Webster’s search.)

At a certain point I realized – this is popular fiction, not literary fiction. A tinny heart of sentimentality beats at its core. It made me wonder about the differences between literary and popular fiction, apart from the prose style, which was plain and beautiful and not clich├ęd. First of all, early on the characters became one note. There was no inner conflict. Secondly, there were way too many bald faced coincidences. Now I realize an EMT in a rural area is going to meet his family when they have accidents – but must his family have so many accidents? Price and Prejudice has lots of coincidences, but they are carefully woven into the story and are pretty much unnoticeable. Thirdly, there were too many death bed type hospital scenes. The drama and stakes felt forced. Finally, all the characters had a well of nobility that was frankly boring. Striving for nobility is interesting – being born noble is boring unless the nobility is tempted and these guys were never tempted. Nobody is selfish, like they are in real life.

The upshot is that I am less likely to read an Anita Shreve novel.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Persian Nights by Diane Johnson

An American ditz contemplates frivolous romances on the eve of the Iranian revolution

Why is not Diane Johnson acclaimed as one of our finest American novelists? Persian Nights is a skillful display of craft, containing numerous interesting characters, a concrete evocation of time and place, a complex plot and an engine powered by a deep down revulsion for American hypocrisy. Also, the novel is a good background primer on the modern politics of Iran. Finally, it’s very funny. Maybe I’m getting overexcited as I’ve only read three Diane Johnson novels. Friends have assured me she has in fact written some bad ones. But the three I’ve read have been very good.

Persian Nights is about Chloe Fowler, an American doctor’s wife who gets sent to Iran for a few months accidentally without her husband. The good news for Chloe is that her lover will be there. The bad news is that the repressive Iranian government is on the verge of being overthrown.  The Americans who prop up the hated Shah and the wealthy Iranians who host the Americans are in real danger of physical harm.

Iran is presented as a gracious cruel misogynistic society. Bad things happen in the middle of the night and it’s quite rude to bring it up the next day. The Americans, all associated with the hospital in Shiraz, are presented as well meaning oafs, appalled by the ignorance and the poverty, but their top priorities seem to be love affairs, drunkeness and caviar.

The structure is farce, especially the big scene at Persepolis. Are there deep feelings here? Yes, but glancingly and in the background. Horrible things happen – innocents and not so innocents die and their deaths seemingly make no dent in Chloe’s pretty little head. Near the end, the threads of the plot tie up a little too head spinningly, but they do in fact tie up, with a few surprises.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Where I Read

I haven’t finished this week’s book, so instead of a review I will set down some thoughts on where I read. Since where I’m reading, I’m discovering, has a bearing on my feelings about the book. My ideal place for reading would be a wingback chair, matching ottoman, roaring fire, my cat and a short glass of whiskey. A rainy dusk. Though I’m pretty sure that exact combination has never happened. Nor is it likely to.

Reading for me is pleasure. The idea of having to read for a living, to wake up and be forced to open a book, to be a professional book reviewer, makes reading lose its appeal for me. The act of reading would degrade into a job like any other. And I want to keep it special.

I am a worker, a mother, a wife. This means that in 2011, in America, every minute of my day is scheduled. I must schedule when I read and therefore I also schedule where I read. Three places, usually – the plane, the bed, the vacation.

The plane is my favorite, the best place – three or four or five hours of uninterrupted concentration. I have a monthly plane trip. The difficult books, the chewy ones, the Victorians, the modernists, the ones with any chance of boredom are saved for the plane. The only setback is my employer’s quite rational expectation that I do some work on the plane. (Since I am getting paid) So I lug around “The Spreadsheet”, reassuringly thick, highlighted and scribbled on. In case, my boss should peek on a stroll to the lavatory. Ah, MT with her spreadsheet, so diligent!

I also read daily, for thirty minutes after I get into bed. The major problem with this, as you can imagine, is that I grow sleepy. But I am consistent. Good writing makes me alert. But when I’m tired, the boring stuff gets so much more boring.

Vacation – Reluctantly I think I must give up reading books on vacation. Between the hora de feliz and the margaritas and keeping an eye on the children playing in the surf and the juicy juicy gossip of my friends, I can’t muster the concentration to follow a novel. Next time I’m bringing a suitcase of magazines.

I still holding out for that wingback chair – but that might be when I retire.