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 His wife has withdrawn from everyone, re-evaluating her life, quitting her high powered job and picking up trash by the side of the road after the family made a decision to terminate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.