Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Girl in the Flammable Skirt by Aimee Bender

Whimsical things happen but the whimsical things draw blood

What a good writer, I kept thinking, as I read through Aimee Bender’s book of short stories.  What a great prose stylist.  The sentences were amazing. Scary glimpses, transgressions, were treated matter of factly, although, like a lot of short story collections, after a while, it grew monotonous in its obsessions. It was like Cherries Jubilee for breakfast and Cherries Jubilee for lunch and Cherries Jubilee for dinner. A few too many of the stories felt glib and not deeply moving.

However, this book was completely original. My favorite story was “Call My Name,” about a rich girl on the SF Muni who propositions men and then meets a man who doesn’t seem interested in her, although he seems interested enough to give her what she wants. I also like “Fell This Girl” about a girl who is having trouble making impressions on those closest to her.

Monday, November 21, 2011

The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris

A man compulsively walks himself to death.

I enjoyed Then We Came to the End, Joshua Ferris's first novel, for, even though the second person plural narration was an outright gimmick, I felt that the gimmick eventually split wide to reveal true emotions, as well as truly comic insights into modern office life. The Unnamed, his second novel, has a gimmick as well. A man can’t stop walking. Instaplot. Set those legs in motion and let’s see what happens.

In general, I felt the book was beautiful and touching but went on a little too long. The scenes got repetitive. It’s about Tim Farnsworth, who seems to have a wonderful life, with Jane, his perfect wife and Becka, his unfortunately chubby daughter. The only strange note is his workaholic nature – it sounds like he spends fourteen to sixteen hours a day at the office. Until he can’t, despite all his will. He is stricken with a malady – without warning, he starts walking for miles and miles until his body is exhausted. This is a problem in the dead of winter when he’s not wearing a coat. The engine of the plot are those legs - those legs take away everything from Tim Farnsworth that makes Tim Farnsworth.

He walks all over America, losing his toes, his fingers and eventually his mind. It’s really a story about a husband and wife’s devotion. I’m not sure if this novel could be described as realism. What is the Unnamed? The rejection of identity. Thank goodness, he’s a little like Batman with ready access to an ATM.

There are two subplots sort of half heartedly inserted, unsuccessfully – Jane’s drunkeneness and some murder mystery with a cleaver and a Fugitive like "real killer". I didn’t need them and was completely gripped by the legs walking and the sleeping in the dumpsters and the landscapes.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

Sivilization ain’t so great.

Huckleberry Finn is the third book in my Re-reading the Classics series and I keep asking myself why didn't I start rereading the classics years ago? All three books so far have been incredibly absorbing and thought provoking. Social issues are engaged, never directly, but sideways, although the society is the skeleton of each novel, provoking the character’s ultimate quests. Finally, each of these novels has been great page turners, helped along by great larger than life charismatic characters. Jane Austen and Mark Twain are masters of dialogue. Charlotte Bronte is a master at setting.

So,anyway, I loved Huck Finn. Like all great books, it succeeds on many levels. First of all, it’s an angry indictment of American culture; its elevated respect for righteous ignorance; its hypocrisy, its quick recourse to violence. The  things wrong with America in 2011 are the same things wrong with America in the 1840’s.

Secondly, this book is a celebration of nature. The man and the boy escape down a broad river through a primeval wilderness, a lost time. The descriptions of the river are extremely beautiful, told in Huck’s unique first person narration. One thing I didn’t realize on earlier readings – Huck and Jim are lazing around naked on that raft. Not politically correct for our time, for sure. But emblematic of their innocent state. Civilization is a threat. They are truly outlaws.

Finally, it’s great story, a boy’s adventure story, with storms and capsizing boats and vigilantes and feuds and bags of gold hidden in coffins. I swallowed completely the miraculous plot twist at the end that Jim is imprisoned at Aunt Sally’s house, because it fit right into the crazy mechanics of Tom Sawyer’s swashbuckling books.

The most wonderful things are Huck and his observations. He’s smart and he’s good. Early on the reader starts to root for him. Much of the interactions between Huck and the women he meets along the way are sweetly observed.

The story really is about the institution of slavery and the forced inferiority of the black man to the white man. All the highly dramatic highly emotional parts of the story have to do with the absurdity and the cruelty of slavery, the separation of families. I cried when Jim told the story of discovering his daughter was deaf. In this story are two log cabin prisons – one with Huck, one with Jim. They both escape.

The black people are presented as terrified and superstitious and are the basis for much of the comedy. The white men are presented as ignorant and violent and are the basis for much of the comedy. Jim is superstitious, kind, loyal and subservient. He is as elemental as the river.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

On Agate Hill by Lee Smith

Life is horrible and wonderful at the same time.

I really enjoyed this book, because it works on many levels. First of all, it's a historical novel about the Reconstruction, and fulfills the educational and entertainment requirements of that genre. We learn a lot about the causes and consequences of the Civil War, as well as get a lot of pretty ladies flouncing around in fancy dress. Secondly, the novel is also a stylistic experiment that uses letters and diaries and court testimonies to tell the story. (As well as a goofily comic contemporary frame.) Finally, the
book is about a great central character, Molly Petree, who is a child at the beginning and a very old lady at the end. Although she ultimately leads a life of near constant suffering, she is still full of life and love. In fact, the novel expresses a sort of a philosophy. Despite immense pressure, Molly chooses to be her own person and to be joyful. The writing is uniformly marvelous, lush and vivid and descriptive. The point of this book is all about the Molly’s voice.

There’s no classical arc of plot, in fact, but I didn’t mind. I’d follow Molly anywhere.