Sunday, October 30, 2011

Still Water Saints by Alex Espinoza

Humans need some extrahuman help to deal with what life brings

A chapter or two into this, I thought, my heart sinking, oh this is one of those linked short story deals masquerading as a real novel, but as I progressed through the story of a small Los Angeles exurb and its inhabitants, I conceded, well, almost. It’s almost a novel. An embryonic novel is buried here – one about a old woman, Perla, born with a gift she didn’t want and Dario, a illegal teenager in mortal danger that she tries to save.

The writing is very careful, painterly and illuminating. There is a rare willingness not to look away from tragedy and sadness. However, the problem with the linked short stories format is that the architecture doesn’t soar. Tension doesn’t build, but is dissipated. Also, I felt it needed more transgression.

There’s an anthropological/educational interest in this book as well. We get a glimpse into the Mexican saints, the uses of the 7 day candle, the bringing to life of the beliefs of this little community. The parents are immigrants, the children are Americans, and there is an unbridgeable gulf between them.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Torch by Cheryl Strayed

A family copes with the premature death of the mother

This was a well written novel, deeply felt. It succeeds at world creation and the world it creates is one typically ignored in contemporary fiction, that is, rural working class Minnesota and the uneducated but smart people who live there. Big subjects (methamphetamine addiction, the dismal state of Native Americans) are touched upon obliquely, but make their mark. Many three dimensional characters are found here, though the men seem sketched the weakest, especially the boyfriends.  The "happy" ending, however, felt a little forced, like a pretty ribbon on a festering scar.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, Part II

I have read this book so many times since I was a kid that reading it now was like taking a tour bus through a well known city. First stop, The Red Room. Second Stop: Helen Burns’ Deathbed. Third Stop: Mr. Rochester Falling Off His Horse. No surprises yet the narrative was completely absorbing. (Apparently that’s what they mean by masterpiece.) There’s something primal about the larger than life characters and there’s something primal about the setting, both appealing to something just beneath our logical mind.

I had forgotten how shocking, how full of “adult content” Jane Eyre is. Jane never denies her love for the married man, though she rejects living with him.  This time, I saw the “Come away with me, Jane” scene as a real conflict. She almost goes with him to France, obliterating her position in society, not so much because it will make her happy, but because she’s afraid Rochester’s going to kill himself, or worse yet, lead a life of meaningless carousing. She and Rochester consider seriously the point that she has no relative to offend by living with him. (Which was a key plot point of Pride and Prejudice)

At times it seems like this novel is a brief in favor of no fault divorce, and it’s humorous how quickly she hightails it to Ferndean once she finds out Bertha jumped off the battlements and is permanently out of the picture.

This time, for me, the ”Come away with me to India” scene, had conflict as well. She likes it when Mr. Rochester bosses her around, because he loves the real Jane, the passionate contrary Jane, but she recognizes that her obedience to St. John’s bossiness would take a level of self control that would kill her. He’s no fan of the real Jane. He, like practically every other element in this novel, wants to suppress the real Jane.

My only quibble with the plot is Grace Poole conveniently being an alcoholic. Mr. Rochester apparently wants to take good care of his wife, but then he hires somebody who would get fired in about 2 weeks. I mean, how many times does Bertha steal the keys – seven or eight times?

I’ve almost talked myself into reading it again.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte, Part I

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

A series of humiliations lead to an orgasm of happiness

This is the second book in my project of Rereading the Classics and this novel inspired so many thoughts in me, I must break them into two weekly chunks. Here’s Part One.

I found this book under the Christmas tree when I was seven years old and for many years after that I only read and reread on the Gateshead and Lowood parts, the passionate little girl imprisoned by the rules part. I didn’t really understand Mr. Rochester and I found (and I think most people do) St. John Rivers to be an intolerable priss. I couldn’t understand at all why Jane would even contemplate his proposal.

Over the years, I have read Jane Eyre several times, and while loving it, found the novel ultimately deeply flawed because for me the story fell apart at the end because of the ridiculousness of the plot. This time I approached it without any preconceived ideas about realism. In no way is the final third of the book realistic – in fact the entire novel is a fairy tale wish fulfillment that was completely satisfying.

The passionate characters play out their memorable scenes against gigantic backdrops – the settings are almost as important as the characters. Jane and Rochester meet at twilight on the moor, each thinking the other a supernatural creature. Like Elizabeth and Darcy they immediately “go at it”. With dialogue that is. The man with direct questioning, the woman responding like a sybll. After Jane saves him from a burning bed, they both realize they are in love.  

Thornfield is a house filled with several varieties of womanhood – the flirtatious little girl, the calm elderly housekeeper. The madwoman in the attic. And Jane, the sensible helper. What will she chose? What role will she play?

Next week, Part II

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Her First American by Lore Segal

A greenhorn encounters America

Someone recommended this, saying I would like it. She was a little wrong as I loved it. The story is at once a sweet reminiscence of an earlier time and, at the same time, a terribly ambitious analysis of America in the 1950's. It’s a comic novel about the Holocaust and U.S. race relations. It succeeds, I think, because these tragic issues are described on the slant. The important things – the destroyed lives in the wake of Nazism,the interracial love dynamics, the subordinate position of blacks in American society, the beginning and the end of the love affair, are never addressed head on. Therefore the immensity of the tragic issues doesn’t overwhelm the writing and sentimentality is avoided. But the reader can feel and clearly understand the emotional consequences of history on people’s lives, even as the reader is laughing at the heroine's comic misunderstandings.

Our immigrant young heroine, Ilka Weissnix, is 21, determined to make a life for herself in a new country. Something happened back there in Vienna - it’s never fully addressed, but she is always expressing her envy/approval of American family groups, American friendship groups. People who have histories.

In a wonderful scene out West, she meets Carter Bayoux. The reader knows he’s black, but Ilka doesn’t until several chapters in. He introduces her to America, and to herself. He’s an intellectual with a drinking problem and a despair problem (and it seems also a woman problem), taking frequent trips to the “bughouse” and drinking bottles of bourbon and talking talking talking. He’s awful, completely unsuitable for Ilka, and wonderful at the same time.

Ilka’s mother is missing, which creates great sympathy among the Americans, who are almost uniformly depicted sympathetically. And the character of the cousin Fishgoppel who is her benefactor is wonderfully done. The scene where Ilka and her mother return to Vienna at the very end of the novel is truly heartbreaking and funny at the same time.

The dialogue is amazing and really brings the characters to life. Bucky Bailey’s call in radio show would drive anyone mad. The most interesting and sustained scene is the summer rental in Connecticut with the four couples. A tour de force.