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.