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.