Sunday, September 25, 2011

Cleaning Nabokov's House by Leslie Daniels

Opening a whorehouse builds confidence

This is a comic novel about Barb Barrett, a beaten down woman who has a mild nervous breakdown when her husband scolds her one too many times about how to load the dishwasher. Somewhat implausibly, she loses everything, including custody of her beloved children. “Somewhat implausibly” could be the watchword of the entire book, even though I enjoyed this novel greatly, held together as it was by Barb’s appealing first person narration. The book is genuinely funny and consistently engaging.

It’s about a woman finding herself, regaining her dignity and losing her passivity. The biggest problem, however, is the whimsical bifurcated plot. The story starts moving from its piteous though funny beginning once Barb rents Nabokov’s house, and reaches into a drawer to find -- a novel handwritten on index cards. And our mystery begins. Or does it? Publishing a lost Nabokov novel seems to be what the story is about, but rather quickly that doesn’t pan out so Barb effortlessly switches (though maybe not the reader) to the whorehouse with male whores idea.  Women flock to the house, somewhat implausibly,in this conservative upstate town.

Barb’s adventures are definitely quirky, though the love interest, the ex-husband and even the kids are a little too unsurprising. The minor characters, however, are completely original. Also, the idea that perhaps a whorehouse is not like a nail salon, and may have seriously corrosive effects on the marriages of its patrons, is completely glided over.

I really enjoyed it.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

The Cookbook Collecter by Allegra Goodman

What is wealth?

This was a disappointment, even more so because I sensed the broken columns of a truly satisfying novel littering these pages. I admire the ambition to write about 9/11 and the dot com bust and the real estate bust and the recently evolving roles of husband and wife. The problem was that our two sister heroines, Emily and Jess Bach, one an ambitious gogetter, one a dreamy philosopher, are thoroughly nice inside, noble in fact, and nice and noble, absenting any internal conflict, lacks dramatic tension and is boring. Also, I was a little bothered that the privilege of these elite people did not warrant comment. Who lives like this? Who lives like this and never questions their good luck?

The last 75 percent of the book was a chore to read as I didn’t care about the main characters and there were pages and pages, like Freedom  or that Lionel Shriver bookwhere characters just kept talking about current events or software like it was an endless episode of Meet the Press.

I don’t want to go on about the problems – among which is that the cookbooks only show up in the middle and the intriguing cookbook collector himself is far too underutilized. The East Coast West Coast Orthodox family was another fruitful sidetrack that bore exploring.

There is some very nice writing here and an excellent scene of some environmentalists saving a redwood and our girl Jess up there in the top of the tree with a fear of heights. Now that’s conflict!

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Going Down by Jennifer Belle

Always something to laugh at when you’re a hooker in the big city

 A friend of mine suggested I read this and I like her too much to say, Don't you know I don't read genre novels? But this wasn’t a cliché genre novel – this was a assortment of flash fiction about a young New Yorker, Bennington Bloom, who blithely gets a job as a prostitute, and her adventures in the absurdity of New York. Much of it was hilarious. The hooker set up is just that, merely a hook to hang an assortment of sharply well written little scenes. Most of the stories don’t really have to do with prostitution. A true novel about prostitution needs to address the unbridgeable gulf between the sexes or the amoral capitalistic ethos or what is the deal with that Madonna/whore thing. I’m not sure that this book does. What I learned was – wow the receptionists in brothels are real bitches.

So the book I read last week was about a nineteen year old who can’t stop herself from letting people know she’s smarter than they are. Bennington Bloom has the same problem. She’s a girl rejected by her father and decides, without a lot of reflection, to join an escort service in order to pay for her sophomore year at NYU. Because the novel is episodic, the reader does not get a sense of any tension building, but is still entertained by the sprightly sarcastic prose . Near the end of the book, a boyfriend is injected so we get some conflict otherwise there seems no reason why Bennington could not have continued sex work. Apart from the police raids.

 The epigraph from Alice in Wonderland is fitting but I think Alice cogitates a bit more on her situation. All this same, this was a very enjoyable read.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Second chances are wonderful.

This is the first book in my project of Rereading the Classics.

This novel is a machine of ingenious plotting . Nothing is wasted -- not a sneeze or ribbon purchase. Carriages are always pulling up and gossipy people excitedly disembarking, moving the story along.

The impetus to the plot is that Bennet sisters need husbands. And, Mrs. Bennet, their ignorant pushy lively mother, is both the strongest force for this, as well as one of the strongest obstacles. At least she always understands what’s at stake.

The book is a serious of scenes and locations in which our hero Mr. Darcy and our heroine Elizabeth, who have a bad first meeting, are constantly thrown into contact with each other. The plot is woven so skillfully into the story that the reader doesn’t question why three men, Mr. Bingley, Mr. Collins and Mr. Wickham, who are all connected to Mr. Darcy, then become intimately connected with Elizabeth, do not know each other. Mr. Bingley introduces her to him, Mr. Collins provides an opportunity to meet him again, and Mr. Wickham gives Darcy the chance to do Elizabeth a really huge favor.

The characterization is also perfect, leaking down to every minor character. The dialogue fleshes out the characters, for there really is not any description. If Jane Austen were alive today, she’d be writing for television.

Darcy thinks he’s better than everybody else and Elizabeth is too eager to let everybody know she thinks they’re absurd. These weaknesses are the flip side of their strengths.

The place names are great, Longbourn, Meryton, Netherfield Park, Rosings and them of course, the pinnacle, Pemberley. I think if you read a hundred throwaway romance books, you would recognize the connections to this book.