Saturday, December 29, 2012

The Borrower by Rebecca Makkai

An immature librarian takes a boy on a cross country road trip

Lucy Hull, a children’s librarian, is concerned about ten year old Ian Drake, avid reader and odd child. His Christian mother visits the library instructing Lucy to allow him only books that have “the breath of God in them.” Lucy also believes that his parents have placed Ian into a “pray the gay away" program, therefore she helps Ian smuggle home unapproved books and tries to be supportive of his nonconforming personality. One morning, after she discovers that Ian has spent the night hiding in the library, instead of calling the police or returning him to his parents, she takes him on a cross country road trip.  Huh? That implausibility, for me, dealt the story a blow from which it never recovered.

I found The Borrower disappointing because I have enjoyed Rebecca Makkai’s short stories – they are honest, direct and true. But this silly premise cannot support the story, despite the injection of the “road novel” structure. Plotting must create narrative tension and keep the reader reading. There is no narrative tension when the librarian is always by the side of the highway wringing her hands worrying about going to jail for kidnapping. I was just about to set the book down for good, when suddenly we were in Chicago with a whole family of Russian eccentrics, and I was transported by the energy. Temporarily bolstered, I kept reading, but the rest of Lucy and Ian’s trip felt forced.

The obvious parallel here is to Lolita, but Lolita has a base coat of tragedy. I also felt the narrator was unnecessarily mean spirited in her character depictions – the elderly drunken head librarian, the anorexic Christian mom. We never got a sense of the agony parents would feel at the disappearance of their small child, so in the end Lucy and Ian felt like game pieces moved around a big map of the United States.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Venus Drive by Sam Lipsyte

Drug addicted losers disappoint themselves

That summary sounds grim, but the experience of reading the book is more positive.  At heart, these stories are a celebration of wordplay and of voice.  The drug addicted losers are not in despair over their condition – their physical dependency amuses them (and us too).  However, I felt ultimately that none of the stories ever cut close to the bone.   I’m not sure if any character really bleeds.  They feint at bleeding.

My favorite story was “Ergo, Ice Pick” about half ass revolutionaries, and showcases Lipsyte’s skill at painting entertaining nutcases.  I was a little disappointed reading this collection, as I enjoyed The Ask and some of Lipsyte’s later stories.  They seem to evoke a deeper more despairing emotion.  Prose must kneel to story, I think, if you want to evoke deep feeling.


Saturday, December 15, 2012

Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion

One too many tragedies sends a woman over the edge

Maria (Mar-eye-ah) Wyeth, a 31 year old failing actress living in Beverly Hills, starts behaving in self destructive ways. The institutionalization of her young daughter has contributed directly to her divorce from Carter, a hot movie director. However, it is Hollywood, so the strange behavior doesn’t raise that many alarms. As the novel goes on, one horrible thing after another happens to Maria. Overwhelmed, she lets it happen without direct protest.

The writing is tremendous, crazy and hilarious, all about the telling detail, compulsively readable, so that the reader completely buys being in Maria’s crazy head, although the reader is also expected to pay attention enough to figure out what exactly is going on with the plot. The dialogue as characterization is wonderful. Didion keeps it mysterious, at first. The organizing principle is gambling. “I was raised to believe that what came in on the next roll would always be better than what went out on the last.” A classically optimistic American (Californian?) position. But lately that philosophy hasn't been working too well for Maria. She copes by stumbling through Hollywood like a zombie.

The story is familiar, perhaps even hackneyed. A beautiful girl from a rural Eden gets transported to Hollywood. She has a fairytale marriage, a beautiful blonde baby, a nascent career as a movie star – then, everything falls apart. Her daughter has a severe mental illness, which puts Maria in agony. Her primary motive in the book is to help her child but her child is beyond help, so Maria numbs her feelings.

Carelessly, also numbly, she gets pregnant. Her ex-husband arranges the illegal abortion. Huge chunks of this novel concern the abortion and Maria’s subsequent horror of bloody fetal parts clogging the drains. She’s so traumatized she can’t react. At night, she tries to comfort herself with peaceful images of her and her daughter and her lover at the beach eating mussels. During daytime, she realizes it’s a fantasy.

I’m not sure that this novel is a fully realized realistic portrait of society. The husband is a two timing villain. And the female friends are monsters.  Near the end, the plot gets to be like the perils of Pauline. I was like come on, she's getting raped too? I could feel sympathy for Carter’s exasperation.

She never tries to make sense of what’s happening to her. But she never gives up either.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Mrs. Kimble by Jennifer Haigh

A sociopath marries three women

Handsome speedy eater Ken Kimble’s story is told through the eyes of his three sad wives, whom he betrays one right after the other. The entire time I was reading, a voice in my head kept saying, this story is stupid, but I kept turning the pages, enthralled. There was a fascination in witnessing his impersonal cruelty, also, Jennifer Haigh also has good story telling skills.

However, I wondered whether this novel was a literary novel or a genre novel. (Because I really don’t want to waste time reading genre novels). Early on in the story, I thought genre, as the opening section was too long winded, but then I recognized the tripartite structure of the book and the thematic and stylistic echoes among the three wives, and I thought ok, this might be literary. But then there were some tired constructions, such as “heart being furiously.”  Also, there was the persistent problem of the main character, Ken Kimble, the villain, being so completely villainous. Ultimately, I think this novel was probably more simplistic than it needed to be. Couldn’t we have celebrated Ken Kimble’s anarchic sense of freedom, his unwillingness to be tied down to drudgery? All his wives are depicted as such victims (although the final wife Dinah manages to turn her ruined life around). I was starting to root for him, if only because he was such a force of nature.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

The Colour by Rose Tremain

A English couple emigrates/escapes to New Zealand and are tested by the unforgiving environment

Joseph and Harriet attempt to farm the harsh New Zealand countryside, but their expectations are met with failure. Joseph is secretive and parsimonious and his discovery of gold (the “colour”) in their stream unhinges him further. He abandons Harriet as well as his status conscious mother to join the gold rush on the other side of the mountain.

This novel left me a little cold - key characters and key motivations are introduced late in the story. In addition, Joseph and Harriet both have drippy personalities. I really didn’t care what happened to them and since the situation for both was so bleak, the book was a somewhat of a chore to finish. Also, perhaps one too many historical details slow down the story. The sentences, however, are beautifully written and many of the scenes are spectacular, set against the spectacular natural backdrop of New Zealand. I especially liked the disintegration of the farm house. That collapse tied into the theme of shelter which was woven throughout the narrative – houses, tents, and caves.

The plot gets condescending in a politically correct way, however, as the supporting characters, saintly aboriginal Pare and saintly G-spot-knowledgeable Chinese immigrant Pao Yi, remind the European characters of their holy connection to Nature. In the end, everyone gets the fate they deserve.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Ask the Dust by John Fante

Portrait of the artist as a young dago

It was fortuitous I ended up reading this book right after the actual Portrait of The Artist.  Both books concern the same subject, the devout Mama’s boy who intends to be a genius. Except one book is a masterpiece with insights pertaining to all humanity and the other is an exhilarating yet dated snapshot of LA in the Thirties. Cartoony but in a good way.

Ask the Dust is about Arturo Bandini, an aspiring writer from Colorado (i.e., a hick), who’s published one story, The Little Dog Laughed.  He has come to LA to make his fortune and spends most of his time daydreaming about that fortune, handing out unwanted copies of The Little Dog Laughed and eating cheap oranges. He goes to a bar for a cup of bad coffee and falls in the love with the waitress Camilla Lopez. They have a weird relationship – he is terribly mean to her and she is terribly mean to him. But apparently they have initiated a grand love affair. Meanwhile there is an earthquake in Long Beach.

The novel is unmistakably funny with visual and dialogue gags. Arturo Bandini is an egomaniac, and the other characters, such as the hilarious landlady, are seen in telling bursts, but they lack dimension, they have no roots extending into Bandini’s soul. We see the start of the Left Coast, peopled by eccentrics who moved here from calmer burgs. Fante's downtown LA is filled with fruits and nuts.  

I was under the misapprehension that nobody had casual sex before 1964 but this book and Mildred Pierce have shown me otherwise. Although Arturo Bandini, unlike Stephen Dedulus, seems to suffer from a detumescing case of Catholic guilt.

Also, what kind of marijuana does Camilla smoke? It sends her to the mental hospital and is depicted by Arturo as if she is shooting meth. I also liked the somewhat hopeless ending.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce

A young man exiles himself from his culture, his motherland, in order to be who he is.

Stephen Dedalus, a bright half blind sensitive boy, from a family on the downward slide, gradually realizes that the oppressive culture that molded his sensibility, and made him an artist, an observer, is the culture he must abandon. Non serviam. I will not serve. The bloody drawn out cutting of the apron strings, as Stephen is squeamish about being the most terrible of the disappointments inflicted upon his saintly mother. But he cannot be a hypocrite, however much society prefers him to be.

This short novel begins when Stephen is a small child.  The prose corresponds to Steven’s age and understanding. Each scene is wonderfully vivid, with powerful characters leaping off the page. The Christmas Dinner and the family argument about Parnell. The mistaken caning of the shy little boy’s palm. Nothing is wasted – each scene illustrates Stephen’s character as well as the Irish culture of the time. Most of the time the sentences are like poetry. The sacred and profane are mixed up together and you can’t tell where one stops and the other begins. In parts, the book is extremely funny. (Although Stephen himself is utterly humorless.) Silence, exile and cunning. He takes himself far too seriously, but that perhaps is how you become a Mount Everest of an author, whose writing works on about seventeen levels at once.

The famous hell lecture bored me. I don’t think I got it, understood the fear, the tension between teenage horniness and the dread of immortal suffering. That is partly a function of modern times, but it doesn’t seem like the other Irish boys in the book are hung up by piety. They seem sarcastic.

Stephen is kind of a namby pamby obsessive but through his eyes a entire world of people come into view, passionate people oppressed on two sides – by the English (that is, what the Irish are NOT) and the church. Oppressed by the English and repressed by the church. And that pressure is what squeezes out a genius.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Busy Monsters by William Giraldi

A word obsessed guy sets off on a quest across America to win back his lady.

Charles Homar, our self conscious hero, is dumped by his marine biologist love Gillian Lee, after she seizes an opportunity to hunt the giant Kraken. He objects, and three months in jail later, journeys to find her, encountering heros and monsters, until at last the lovers are tearfully reunited on the docks of the New England Aquarium.

I didn't really like this. It reminded me of Swamplandia!, that is, a story that sounds great on paper -- the chasing of the Kraken, the hunting of Bigfoot, a quest across the United States, but once into the actual reading, despite all the driving around the country, the story lacked forward momentum. The real emotions are under glass or under a mile of ice or something; they are not being transmitted. I never bought that Charles was in love with Gillian. In fact, Gillian does not seem at all real to me. Each night when I picked up the book to read my allotted 50 pages, I couldn't quite remember/care what was going on with Charles.

Although I liked the clever idea that he was a weekly columnist for a magazine (why not a blogger) and everyone he visits on his journey is aware of his prior columns and comments on them.

In Nabokov sentences are delightful and funny and erudite -- mini masterpieces. Here the sentences felt strained and reading the prose was like chopping through the underbrush.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Mildred Pierce by James M. Cain

The rise and fall (and rise again?) of an American woman

I thought this would be light popular reading, musty perhaps, but instead I was impressed by this character study.  The book is also a glimpse into a particular culture (Los Angeles) at a particular time (the Depression). Mildred Pierce, abandoned by her kindly ineffectual husband, desperately needs money in order to keep a roof over the heads of her children. She swallows her pride and becomes a waitress, then uses her pie making skills, supplemented by her shapely legs, gradually to reinvent herself as a wealthy woman. Her unreasonable devotion to her dreadful "artistic" daughter, Veda, however, ultimately causes her world to collapse.

I didn't love the book, however. It had a coldness for me, as I kept anticipating the anvil floating above Mildred's head.  Mildred needs money though Mildred has a weakness for handsome weakish men.  You root for Mildred Pierce because she's a go getter, she won't be beaten down. That part was typically American, and in some ways, since Mildred Pierce is unmoored, unchurched, typically Los Angeles. She gets her kids' names from a psychic.

The book is a study not only of just one woman, but of productive friendships between women and hierarchal enmity between women. Women bail Mildred Pierce out and she helps them in return, provides the best outlet for their talents. I'm not sure if the mother/daughter plot fit in that well with the pulling herself up by the bootstraps plot.  I didn't quite buy Mildred's behavior on behalf of Veda. Unless Veda is the idealized version of Mildred, the weapon she sends into high society to have her revenge.

The plotting was wonderful, unforced, except at the end when the soap opera like plot twists hurt my neck and harmed the story.  Until that point the novel was a naturalistic character study with planted interjections of shocking nudity and casual sex (and I was in fact shocked at how quickly Mildred falls into bed with men). At the end, however, the believability of Veda's operatic success become suspect.

Is Mildred Pierce a monster? Not at all. She strikes me as an efficient manager. She does what she has to do. Unlike Madame Bovary, she cannot rely on men for money, as the upper class men she sleeps with (Bert her husband and Monty her lover) are completely useless (financially, that is) after the Depression wiped away their wealth. So instead of taking rat poison after her world collapses, Mildred just "gets stinko" and lights the oven for more pie baking. Again, typically American.

The most spectacular scene in the book is the New Year's Eve party in the colossal downpour. Only a woman would do that, right, not be deterred by washed out roads to attend a party. An extremely vivid and well written scene.

There's also some humorous parts for someone reading the book in 2012. Mildred is always dashing between Pasadena and Newport Beach-- nowadays that would be about three hours each way.



Saturday, October 27, 2012

The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus

Communication is poisonous

Sam and his wife Claire are getting sick. Their faces are "shrinking" and their bodies are wasting away. The voices of children seem to be poisonous, in particular, the malicious responses of their angry adolescent daughter Esther. Some combination of language or communication or comprehension is releasing a noxious chemical. Like a mad scientist, or homeopath, Sam tinkers in the basement, searching for a cure. Things change for the increasingly desperate Sam when he meets the red headed Murphy, a neighborhood loiterer who takes a suspicious interest in the Jewish families in the neighborhood.

The novel begins somewhat realistically, then the reader gradually discover that Sam and Claire are "forest Jews", who visit a shack deep in the woods to listen to fairy tales and nursery songs from a "Jew hole" buried in the floor. The revelation of this extremely odd world was wonderfully done.  The sentences are beautifully carved and the strange imagery is fully imagined. Mountains of salt drift across America.

The novel is well balanced, with a Part I and a Part II, and a short little Part III. However, overall, this one might have been a little too cerebral for my taste. In the middle, Sam's attempts to develop an antidote to the wasting disease got repetitive and boring and I very nearly gave up. It was lots of pages about some guy sitting at a desk fiddling with homemade machines and letters and script and I grew tired of him. Can't we have a sense of beauty or joy or a laugh or two?

There is an uneasy mismatch between the essential silliness of the thriller plot, such as the cackling dialogue of the super villainous villain, and the extreme seriousness of every character we encounter. Although I am glad I didn't bail on the book because the last part became emotionally moving as we returned to the family story. Sam's hope is the only thing that sustains him at the end. But hope is there.



Thursday, October 18, 2012

Elizabeth Costello by J.M. Coetzee

What is the right way to live?

Well, she's always stepping in it, isn't she, Elizabeth Costello.  She is unable not to intrude on other people's comforting illusions and must always speak the truth.

Elizabeth Costello is a cranky old Australian writer who travels the world, speaking at various conferences, and always on topics she feels strongly about. This is a novel of ideas which gives extremely short shrift to the novel part.   Reading the book was an intense emotional experience, but is it even a novel? Yes, I believe it is, for even though there is a very sketchy plot (basically an extended travel itinerary -- final destination Limbo), there is in fact one key novelistic element. That is, a main character. Elizabeth Costello is depicted as a passionate hurting human being. A person who keeps screwing up but keeps charging into battle. The square peg in the round hole. You root for her. She is just trying to do the right thing, even as she accepts the freebie cruise and the rubber chicken and the big check.

The structure of the book is a series of lectures, lectures which apparently Coetzee has in fact given. (Again, is this a novel?)  The lectures are highly interesting and I had to keep putting the book down, not because I was bored, but because I was overwhelmed and had to keep putting it down to think. What is evil? Is it the mindless munching on other sentient beings, their cruel profitable industrialized transformation into protein? Is it a novelist exploiting humans' intrinsic desire to witness depravity, or should a respectful curtain be drawn over literary depictions of evil and suffering? Should life be approached in a religious posture or a humanist posture? They both are a "quest for salvation."

Is the novelist an entertainer for the wealthy rich, or a moral teacher? (Hint - you make more money as an entertainer.)

The book did stop me from eating meat, at least for a day or two.



Sunday, October 14, 2012

Slow Burn by Sabina Murray

Party girl resists her fate 

I wasn't particularly interested in this story of a rich promiscuous young woman's nightly drinking binges, but once I started reading I was immediately sucked into the narrator's very concrete sense of unhappiness and was compelled to find out what happened next. The main character is Isobel, a rich girl from the Manila upper class, who will not be controlled by her society's rigid rules about class and gender. The scenes are mostly set in affluent bars, restaurants and the opera hall. In some ways, the story progressed like a Jane Austen novel.

Isobel doesn't play nicely with the other girls, or even with the other guys. She lets herself be used by men. To get something or feel something. She likes outraging people, and in fact there is another kind of outrage here simmering underneath. An outrage at a deeply macho, deeply corrupt society.

At the end, a supernatural element enters the story with a fortune teller and a curse and a madman with a gun. I enjoyed it.


Sunday, October 7, 2012

The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler

What is honor?  

I had no idea this book was so good.   I thought it would be stupid.  The first chapter was amazing, establishing the impressive Sternwood mansion, the suffocating hothouse preserving the decrepit old man, the two corrupt girls. The hero, Philip Marlowe, educated private detective, is hired by General Sternwood, the dying oil magnate, to discover who's been blackmailing him on account of his two beautiful wayward daughters. Carmen, the younger, clearly has a screw loose, and Vivian, the older smarter one, seems to be hiding something. Numerous shootings and car chases follow.  Nearly every woman he encounters has a soft spot for tall dark Marlowe.

Chandler's strength is description, and it was entertaining reading about LA and Hollywood in the 1940's. Rialto is farmland here, orange groves, not acres of housing like it is now. The writing is deadpan and funny and even though the dialogue is sometimes hampered by obsolete slang it moves the story along and is witty. The book is a very easy read.

Philip Marlowe is still a little shocked at how fallen the world is. What are principles? Some low down people seem to have them, and some high class people definitely don't. The family story provides the motivations here. The Sternwoods are trying to protect each other and Marlowe is trying to protect the Sternwoods. To a degree.

Certain elements haven't stood the test of time. The porn library on Hollywood Boulevard is funny now - the criminalization of stuff available immediately on the Internet. Also, a key part of the plot reminded me of The Sound and The Fury, in that the premise rests on a nutty concept of female sexuality. About a third of the way through, the story degenerates into a welter of dames shooting guns and having fits, and the novel stopped making narrative sense. Also, I am stumped by Marlowe falling in love with Mona Mars who he has apparently known for two minutes.

But I will definitely read more Chandler.


Saturday, September 29, 2012

Toward You by Jim Krusoe

Who hears the cries of the lonely dead?

I found parts of this novel truly frightening and disturbing. I also thought the sentences were hilarious. Toward You is about Bob, an Aspergery upholsterer, who builds a helmet (the "Communicator') constructed of egg cartons and duct tape in order to hear the voices of the dead. The helmet seems to work, though not very well. Meanwhile, Bob is tormented by Steadman, a cop who suspects him of numerous crimes, and deranged Dennis, who feels that Bob had something to do with the death of his beloved rabid dog. Who is also named Bob.

Bob has a deadpan, slightly aggrieved voice. He earnestly labors on his helmet, much like Jonathan in Krusoe's Girl Factory labored on his lady revitalizing yogurt project. Meanwhile, Bob reminisces about the only woman he had a close relationship with, Yvonne, who dumped him. Inexplicably, according to Bob. Then one day Yvonne shows upon his doorstep, eight year old daughter Dee Dee in tow, searching for the dog who bit Dee Dee. In a surreal comic scene, Bob serves them yellow cake.

Eventually, the story turns plotty, though all the threads don't quite come together. I felt there was real pathos and horror with Dee Dee's story, who seems to be stuck in Limbo with Bob, the rabid dog who killed her. The deaths in Girl Factory were funny. The death of Dee Dee's wasn't. A crevasse opens up in the novel and there is real emotion under the dead pan prose.

In some ways, this novel is about trying or not trying to follow the rules in suburban American.  Bob tries to, but just can't figure it out.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

The Necessary Hunger by Nina Revoyr

A high school basketball player suffers from unrequited love

This novel was strangely compelling, even though it was "about" schoolgirl basketball and I don't have that much of an interest in schoolgirl basketball. But the book didn't concern games and practices and sneakers, not really.  It was about a girl in love with another girl, and how the girl cannot bring herself to say so. The love story pulled me along, the way that Nancy is trapped, has no power over her love. In addition, the novel offers a glimpse into another world, a world not usually seen in literary novels-- African American 1980's LA, a background of endless freeways, carjacking and Laker championships.

Nancy Takahiro, 17 year old basketball phenom from Inglewood, is in love with Raina, the 17 year old star guard from a rival high school. It so happens (and this is handled believably), that Nancy's dad and Raina's mom are in love and move into together. The girls become housemates. Nothing much happens in the novel after that. Nancy pines, they drink a lot of beer, their respective teams win until they meet in the championship where Raina pulls a Isaiah Thomas bonehead style pass. Racial tensions, homosexual tensions, are in the background of this novel, not the foreground. These kids really don't know they're poor.

The novel is about 25% baggier than it needs to be.  We may need to know all the players on Nancy's team, but do we really need to know all the players on Raina's team?  At the end it bogged down, the emotions unsupported, but Nancy with her blind strivings, her passion for Raina, keeps the reader interested. Raina, however, is essentially unknowable. I guess that's what makes her the love object.





Monday, September 17, 2012

The Way I Found Her by Rose Tremain

A mystery and a love story and a growing up story

This is the third novel I've read by Rose Tremain, and all three have been deeply moving. The subject matter and settings have been very different, but each book has been written with a high degree of technical artistry, founded on a bedrock of fully imagined three dimensional characters, rich with telling details and emotions.

Lewis Little, the precocious, highly literate, 13 year old narrator of The Way I Found Her, accompanies his mother to Paris, when she is working as a translator for an eccentric chubby Franco Russian historical novelist. (So we get a little commenting on the craft of writing novels). Though Lewis is very smart, there are many things going on between the adults in the story that he is not quite aware of or doesn't understand. And therefore sometimes the reader doesn't fully understand, but the fogginess is not unpleasant. All the characters are well rounded, unique -- Lewis's unwitting father back in England, his red headed passionate mother, the existentialist roofer, the middle aged novelist Lewis is in love with. The little dog is a compelling character as well as a plot device.

Lewis is translating a famous French novel about adolescence, Les Meulnes (which probably needs to be read to really appreciate the book). He also likes Crime and Punishment, and those two novels clank and bang around this one. The book is also a travelogue of Paris.

The grand finale is highly plotted, a bit like the end of Huckleberry Finn, where a thought provoking piece turns plotty, and though the ending felt fantastical, it felt right.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Waiting for the Barbarians by J.M. Coetzee

We are the barbarians

I understand what they mean now when they say novelists are moral teachers. This book was a masterpiece, containing lyrical dreamlike imagery, concise beautiful prose, a sympathetic protagonist, and a moral and political lesson.

The allegorical story is about the Magistrate, who heads up a sleepy little town at the frontier of the sophisticated powerful Empire. The town lies near a vast desert and a glacier. There are guns but no internal combustion engines. However, there is humanity and its delusions, which seem to remain the same no matter how fantastical the setting. The Magistrate spends his time being an amateur archeologist and sleeping with willing young servants. One day a man with newfangled sunglasses visits - Colonel Joll. He has arrived to snuff out the incipient Barbarian rebellion. The Magistrate scoffs at his fear mongering but soon the Colonel supports his thesis by torturing some natives, some unto death. The Magistrate objects to the torture, (though not strongly enough) and becomes the fascinated patron of a Barbarian girl maimed by Colonel Joll. In the course of trying to help the girl, he is identified as a traitor by Colonel Joll. Then the Magistrate experiences degradation and understands how much protection his education and superior culture have given him.  That is, not very much.

Perhaps this anti torture novel has more relevance for the America of 2012 then the South Africa of 1980, for which it was written. That is a dreadful thing.

What is innocence?

Sunday, September 2, 2012

How To Get Into the Twin Palms by Karolina Waclawiak

A lonely immigrant to LA tries to find out what's inside a private Russian nightclub

So called Anya, Polish born, but brought to this country as a child, comes to LA, and is fascinated by the garish Twin Palms nightclub next door to her run down West Hollywood apartment. She is determined to see inside, and, with a blunt direct seduction, chooses club goer Lev, a middle aged Russian wise guy, as her "boyfriend." Lev is all too happy to use Anya for sex but not much else. When Lev puts her in her place, she turns to a drastic solution.

There were echoes here of Burning, Diane Johnson's novel of LA eccentrics who continue in their sun baked eccentricity even as their mansions go up in smoke. I think in both novels there is an underlying editorial approval, Sodom and Gomorrah style, that LA going up in smoke is a fine conclusion. Waclawiak has an appealing deadpan prose style that works well as Anya encounters the Russians next door; Lev's wife and her nasty friends; Mary, the eccentric Bingo lady, (who in her life has experienced true love).  The characters are vivid and lively.

Anya's motivations confused me a little, however. Why does she want to get into the Twin Palms? It seemed very tacky. Why does she pursue Lev? He really seems tacky - though manly and animalistic. I didn't understand the fascination. I assume it was a sort of deranged lust, but then again Anya finds all human excretions disgusting and parts of the book are nauseating. In a literary way, of course.

I sense the real emotional story lies with Anya's Polish mother left behind in Texas and their strained phone conversations. The real immigrant's story of leaving family and culture behind. And also Anya's relationship with Mary, the chippy bingo lady and the tale of her lost love. The conflagration at the end felt a little tacked on.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Shadow Tag by Louise Erdrich

The marriage of two damaged people goes into a sharp downward spiral

Irene, a stay at home mom to three children, is also the muse to Gil, successful painter, and wealthy rageaholic. He is needy, charming and an egomaniac. He also beats the kids and wants to utterly consume Irene. Deep down, Irene knows she needs to get out, but passive aggressively cruelly manipulates Gil's jealousy to the point of madness and the destruction of her family.

I read this searing novel, completely gripped, on the plane, then sat down in Baggage Claim to finish it. Its true subject, I think, is two people destroying their children, one by control and the other by abandonment by alcohol.

The writing and complex imagery are extremely beautiful and wrapped around a downer story. The abuse scenes are alternated with playful funny scenes of affluent family life -- outdoors winter fun in Minneapolis.

The plot is escalated by Irene's use of a fake diary to feed Gil's insecurities and jealousy. He's made his reputation on paintings of her - degrading paintings perhaps. She's her own Iago and keeps upping the ante, creating a feedback loop of contempt intense love and lust all rolled together. The moral problem is that kids are brought into the mix. Everyone pretends to be the perfect family when they are all walking on eggshells. 

Shadow tag refers to a game the family plays - stepping on someone's shadow. Since there's a Native American frame around the novel, shadow tag also refers to what Gil has done to Irene - he stole her shadow, her soul, to make his paintings, his reputation, his identity. The couple truly is codependent.

A revelation at the end was gimmicky, however, and detracted from the power of the book.  But all in all, a frightening moving story.


Sunday, August 19, 2012

Lulu In Marrakech by Diane Johnson

A naïve young CIA agent tries to make sense of Marrakech, and by extension, the Islamic world

Something went terribly awry in this novel. In Diane Johnson's other beautifully written books, her trademarks have always been tight classical plotting, a ditzy American heroine, trenchant social observations and a submerged outrage at individual and societal obtuseness. In many of her novels, as well, there is an underlying fascination or fear of the Other. But something went wrong in the execution of Lulu in Marrakech. The plotting is clumpy, with clues piling up suddenly, the ditziness of the heroine falls below a reasonableness standard as no government agency would ever employ her, especially as a spy, and finally her cover story of a love affair that actually is a love affair creates too little conflict. Finally, the fascination with the Other, in this case, Muslims, crosses the line into offensiveness.

Lulu Sawyer, the assumed name of the young California CIA agent, travels to Marrakech, to resume her relationship with Brit Ian Drumm. She lives with him in his compound and gathers information on terrorist funding. She also spies on Ian, but seems to be genuinely in love with the man. The weeks pass and Lulu learns more about the expatriate community.  She also works to help a French girl, Suma, who is in danger of being killed by her brother for the dishonorable crime of losing her virginity. In addition, Ian's neighbors, the good looking Saudis, Gazi and Khaled, are much closer to Ian than Lulu originally assumed. These plot elements gather together, but not in a climatic fashion.

In short order, Lulu stops a suicide bomber, and assists in a CIA rendition. The tone, as is typical in a Diane Johnson novel, is zany, but a huge problem is that a 14 year old suicide bomber is not zany and a man choking to death on his own vomit is not zany. The tone is too muddled. I think we as readers are too close to 9/11.

Here's what I liked. It was consistently absorbing, and I learned a little about Moroccan culture.


Sunday, August 12, 2012

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

A girl becomes a man

Two stories entwine in this ambitious novel. The first is the three -generation immigration saga of the Turco-Greek Stephanides family and how they became prosperous Americans, rising along with the city of Detroit. The second is the story of Calliope Stephanides, Detroit teenager, who discovers something terribly shocking and unique about herself.  She's a freak.

I found the immigration story off putting at first - the prose was brittle and "rollicking" and there were pages and pages of it. The long and complicated family history, however, serves as the scallop shell or presentation for the very moving story of Calliope's "two births". The story picks up considerably about halfway through when Callie finally leaves off her grandparents' story and begins her own.

Calliope begins life as a much desired pretty little girl and slowly starts to realize something is wrong, something is different about her. Her story is suspenseful, hounded by the ticking clock of puberty. The prose changes as well -gone iss the hyper energetic Keystone Kops rhythm, and in its place are carefully written scenes describing the life of a prosperous young girl. And when Callie has to make a decision, whether to continue life as a woman, although a woman lacking "eroto sexual sensation," or to keep on becoming a man, her decision is instantaneous. It's also the moment she goes from child to adult.

This novel is also a love story to Detroit, to immigrant hustle, to Greek Orthodox ritual. The Elijah Muhammad subplot is hilarious. Like all excellent novels, the story worked on many levels and was supported by a structure of symbols - the silkworm, the mulberry tree, the Muses, Tireseas . I enjoyed it quite a bit.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Blueprints for Building Better Girls by Elissa Schappell

Young women are jarringly disappointed by society’s expectations

Much like last week’s book, Richard Lange's Dead Boys, the emotional and geographic landscape of this book felt insular, almost claustrophobic. These stories, however, were not about tough guys, but about their opposite: upper middle class neurotic white women. The problems these women faced were very recognizable to me, and the writing was often hilarious. But unlike in Lange’s book, the stakes here felt middling to low, so some of the stories dragged. Schappell’s heroines confront anorexia, date rape, Grampa’s Alzheimer’s and the realization that this whole marriage/motherhood thing may not make you feel fulfilled but rather imprisoned. The women address the problems with wisecracks, but only a few of the stories moved me. Many of them felt like a series of sharply written comic paragraphs that never ignited into a real story.

The story I liked best was Aren’t You Dead Yet? in which the narrator, a seemingly unconfident young woman, turns out to be quite the cold blooded artist who gets annoyed her dickhead artist ex boyfriend, slated to die young, and therefore the perfect subject for a play, apparently is going to get better and live. The story worked, I think, because the narrator was active instead of passive or passive aggressive. 

These stories were linked, tentatively but skillfully, not intrusively. I didn’t feel like this collection was claiming to be a novel under false pretenses.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Dead Boys by Richard Lange

Confused passionate guys stumble around LA.

I really enjoyed these stories – they were full of life.  I never got bored, although the set up was always the same– first person narration, a tough guy, kind of a fuck up, a loyal woman by his side as he confronts life in this sunny uncaring city. The sameness of the technique risked monotony, though I didn’t find these stories monotonous at all. I was completely sucked into the characters, their desperate drunken need to make things right. The writing was perfect for the subject matter – not overwritten, but lively.

Although I wasn’t crazy about the title story, “Dead Boys”. Perhaps it was a little too gritty. I liked “Bank of America”. The tension was real and very effective.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Await Your Reply by Dan Chaon

A madman can be who he wants

Await Your Reply left me cold. Maybe after J.M. Coetzee, my standards are too high. This is a well crafted earnest novel addressing the issue of fluid identity in modern America culture, and there was much beautiful inventive imagery: a drained dam, Nunavut, orphans galore and magic tricks. But for me the novel was like a puzzle made of ice. I just didn’t care about any of the characters – they were selfish and unpleasant, but selfishness and unpleasantness hasn’t stopped me before. I think I didn’t care about the characters because the characters didn’t care about anything. Not really.

The novel consists of three stories which come together at the end (unsurprisingly in my opinion). A brother searches for his insane twin, a girl realizes her boyfriend is not what he seems, a college kid gets involved in a life of crime.

The only story I was interested in was that of the sane brother searching for his twin because he was the only one with any feelings. I definitely wanted more of him and his relationships. He really wanted to save his brother. He wanted to recreate the innocent past. He was interesting.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee

Do you only see clearly once all is lost?

This beautiful novel profoundly moved me.  Disgrace had much in common with the classic novels I have been recently been reading: a powerful, elegant style, complexity of theme, and a social/anthropological glimpse into an interesting country. Finally, this novel grappled with moral questions, though the answers were ambiguous, if not pessimistic.

The setting of South Africa and its social and racial pressures are key. Disgrace is about David Lurie, a onetime professor of classical literature currently right sized into a professor of  Communications.  Outwardly respectable, but sexually creepy, he presses himself onto a beautiful young student, is denounced and fired. David retreats to his daughter’s far off farm, quietly sneering at her slow paced unattractive lifestyle. One afternoon he and his daughter have visitors who use violence make him understand his helplessness, his daughter’s helplessness, and how Western Civilization, his fancy words, his Byron or Wordsworth, can’t protect him or his family any more. If they ever did. At the end of the story, he finds some solace in taking care of diseased and dying animals at the animal shelter.

The novel is about many things, but one of the things is lust. It reminded me a little of Lolita and Tolstoy’s Resurrection, which are both about a man looking back with unwilling regret at the woman he crushed with his lust. Because women are two things at once – they are persons, of course, and they are also blank canvases that men project their values and desires.  Women can be possessed.

It’s a disgrace to rape, but it’s also a disgrace to be raped. And both father and daughter have to hide out, accept their disgrace, accept the path society offers as the way out, though it may be a humiliating path. The daughter, to continue the way she’s been living, agrees to an arrangement I thought no woman on earth would agree to. No person would. But then, on further reflection, haven’t humiliating arrangements been the way all subjugated women and people have had to live? Most recently perhaps in South Africa? But still, it doesn’t make it right.

There’s a lot going on here with the dogs. People behaving like dogs, people being cruel to dogs, people sacrificing all their time to be compassionate to abandoned dogs. Why does David Lurie only feel a sense of love (for the dogs only) after losing everything? Though the ultimate image here is bleak. Is Coetzee saying there’s no point?

All I know is that I must immediately read more JM Coetzee.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

The Best American Short Stories 2011

A look at what’s obsessing America

Enough already with the dead babies. They featured in every other story.  Relying on the dead child as a mechanism to move the plot forward, or to wrap things up is weak.  Surely there are other ways to drum up emotion in the reader.

The introduction by Geraldine Brooks was insightful. I learned that most stories written are adultery stories, therefore, for her, those stories started running together. The subject is cliche. And I agree that the stories I liked best, that were the most insightful about America, that drew the most blood, were the stories that had a fantastical element. Caitlin Horrocks, “The Sleep”, in which an entire Midwest town, a family at a time, decides to hibernate. What does that say about our society? “Phantoms” by Stephen Millhauser, is a quasi scientific look at fleeting ghosts who haunt a small town, yet seemed highly annoyed by its flesh and blood inhabitants. Finally, my favorite story was George Saunders’s “Escape from Spiderhead,” in which convicts agree to mood altering medical experiments. The plots are fantastical, but these stories address the human heart and memory.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The Forgotten Waltz by Anne Enright

Be careful of what you want for you might get it.

This is the story of Gina Moynihan and Sean Vallely, residents of modern day booming Dublin, who are married to other people, but see each other sexually, until things come to a head and they end up living together. (But do they?) It’s also about Sean’s upsettingly concrete epileptic daughter Evie and how she cannot be willed away. Gina is the first person narrator, with a unique voice; casual and comic and unsentimental and cutting like a diamond. Although Gina is blind about a few things – herself, for starters, and the true nature of her boyfriend.

A few pages in, I thought oh dear; this will be dull if it’s just her going on about the man. Will the stakes be high enough? But in a short while, I got it – this novel starts off by being about adultery, but the adultery is merely the light to see things more clearly; that is, modern Irish society, the family, marriage, children, promises. The book examines people’s capacity for self deception, hubris, greed and the consumerist lifestyle. It’s one long story of beautiful excuses.

This not about the Ireland of culchies and lambing but of high powered European consumerism, although there remains quite a bit of drunkenness. Somewhere in the middle of the book, the Irish real estate bubble pops, and the characters are left with houses they can’t sell and loans they can’t pay back. The question might be, what’s it all worth anyway?

Saturday, June 23, 2012

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

Napoleon invades Russia and Natasha is exceptionally charming

Wow. This was the final book in my Rereading the Classics project and it turned out to be the best, though I was reluctant to put this one on the list, reluctant to read it. The book was so very thick and the typeface was so very small. Did I really have a whole month to devote to a single book?

But rereading War and Peace turned out to be quite a moving experience. This is a historical novel, with actual people, such as Napoleon and Alexander I, interwoven with the fictional characters. The three main characters, whose struggles with life and love and the invading French Army provide the plot structure, are: Pierre, the once illegitimate and now astonishingly rich nobleman; Andrei, the intelligent Army officer who turns influential people off with his hard edged sense of superiority; and Natasha, the black eyed beautiful singing darling of the happy Rostov clan. The reader cares deeply about these three flawed people.  Tolstoy had such compassion for his characters. He was a keen observer of human nature.

There are scores of minor characters as well. Figuring out who is who among all these similarly named Russian characters is a problem at first, but soon the reader pieces it out. Some of the cynical villains are sentimentalists at heart and some of our noble heroes have a despicable weak streak. What is bravery? What is nobility? What is innocence? They are a lot of successful society frauds in this book who believe themselves dependeable honest people. Society is hypocritical, and morality is something recognized only in the soul, not in society at large.

And there is Napoleon, of course, a key figure obsessing all the characters. Napoleon had quite an influence on European consciousness, didn’t he? Maybe his competence frightened the old relaxed elite, although virtually every engagement of the war on both the Russian and the French sides is a series of miscommunications and botched executions. The war scenes and the chain of command reminded me so much of the business world.   Russia defeats Napoleon, not because of a grand strategy, but because of bull headed inertia.

Tolstoy had an equal understanding of both male and female characters. How does he know what it feels like to breast feed an infant? How does he know what it feels like to charge into battle?  The key thing is that Tolstoy made the characters sympathetic, irresistible. You root for them. I wanted to call up Natasha on a nonexistent cell phone to warn her off Anatole. (Although this is yet another novel with a key plot point being the subjugation of women – women as untouched property.)

I sobbed a couple of times, the first time when the grouchy old prince died. 

The novel wraps up with only a few convenient plot twists. Pierre's wife’s opportune illness, Prince Andrei ending up in the Rostov's house just as Napoleon rolls into town. It's a little like a telenovela, but it works. The only thing that doesn’t work is that dreadful second epilogue.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

The Signal by Ron Carlson

A man, a woman, the American wilderness

This novella is about hiking in the woods but apparently hiking in the woods is an insufficient hook so two unlikely plots are clumsily glued to the core story, with a heavy thumbed reliance on unrealistically evil villains. The real villain of this novel is civilization, the real estate development causing the end of the rancher’s influence. This story is similar to Galveston, the good guy who screws up trying to redeem himself.  Our hero, Mack, a flawed suffering macho man, is paired with his ex wifeVonnie, the innocent woman that he has failed to protect. Can he protect her now, now that their hike in the woods is interrupted by a pair of grungy rapists as well as a black ops CIA technician? However, the story was definitely gripping, and near the end, I couldn’t put it down. A story has power when you care about the main character.

Initially, I wasn’t crazy about the prose style - Hemingwayesque, with lots of description of nature. But it started to grow on me. The images of nature were very memorable. In some ways, this was a prose poem about camping.  It really didn't need the action movie plotting.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

If You Follow Me by Malena Watrous

A young American woman experiences rural Japanese culture

This novel is about a recent college graduate, Marina, who, on a whim, and in an attempt to escape her feelings after her father’s suicide, follows her lesbian girlfriend, Carolyn, to a rural Japanese teaching assignment. Only it’s always freezing there, and her girlfriend starts to dislike her, and she just has lots of trouble fitting into this odd culture. But the harshness and the sadness and the isolation force her to grow up.

In addition to being a work of fiction, it’s also a semi journalistic view of Japan. A grouchy old neighbor harasses her about not sorting her gomi or trash correctly. The letters her handler, Miyoshi, sends to counsel her about the trash are truly hilarious, and Watrous was right to open the novel with a sample letter.

The first person narration was open and honest and very readable. The main conflict was not between the two lovers, as one would expect from the title, but between Marina’s freewheeling American ways and the Japanese rule driven conformist culture. That provided the narrative momentum, for a while anyway. Then the story went on for a bit too long and had to be forcibly wrapped up with characters screaming at each other on a beach. 

What worked was Marina’s analysis of this alien culture. What didn’t quite work was depicting the motivations behind the different relationships, or even introducting a romantic angle at all. I’m not sure why this got nominated for a Lambda award as Marina’s same sex attraction was almost presented as something she would grow out of. A phase.

Overall, this was enjoyable to read.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

In Zanesville by Jo Ann Beard

A girl and her best friend grow up and grow apart

This novel is the story of narrator Jo (apparently that is her name) and her early teenage years in a quiet little town. Jo has a drunken failure for a father, a hardworking mother, and a mischievous best friend Flea (though the two of them are certainly not bad girls). Once boys, hesitantly, at the edges, enter the picture, the bond between the two girls gets frayed. Will the friendship survive? Nothing really much happens in this novel, which bothered me at first, and then didn’t. The girls rescue some kittens and they go to a wake. A lot of time is spent in angst over whether the cheerleaders like them or not. It's probably a triumph that such an unassuming book got published and at first I wondered if this was a young adult book.

The sometimes hilarious details reminded me of my seventies girlhood but the meandering story line also reminded me that my seventies girlhood was so dull I ran away to Hollywood. Does a novel require an imaginative architecture, that is, a plot? When you eschew a plot, you eschew plot missteps, but the stakes stay small. Or do they? Isn’t this novel about small town girlhood also about life itself? Nothing seems to happen in Zanesville, but then perhaps everything happens.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

A woman must enter the jungle to find two people but ends up finding much more.

Much like Margaret Atwood, Ann Patchett combines exceptionally evocative literary description and imagery with a deep technical understanding of plot. That’s why her books are so hard to put down. The first image in State of Wonder is a blue airmail letter, a letter that sends our main character, Dr. Marina Singh, immediately packing for the jungle.  Not a scene in the book is wasted. The minor characters are also cogs in the plot, moving the story along.  

This book was wonderful, deeply satisfying, although only for the first four fifths. Dr. Marina, a mixed race Minnesota medical researcher, is apparently the only person who can be sent into the jungle to discover what happened to her lab mate, Anders, when he failed to return from his jungle assignment. Their employer, a pharmaceutical company, is interested in the status of their company’s billion dollar investment in drug research being completed at a hidden Amazonian lab. (Question: couldn’t the head office find the lab with a close perusal of Google maps?). The lab is overseen by the elderly terrifying Dr. Swenson, who was involved in a prior tragedy in Marina’s medical career. The establishment of Marina’s inner and outer conflict is set up brilliantly.

There’s so much to think about in this wonderful book – motherhood and industrialization and innocence and evil and nature. The plot serves as a frame to deliver at last Marina into a beautiful bizarre grove of otherworldly trees – trees that give life (and visions) to the tribe. The story is really about Marina’s discovery of herself and what she wants.

In the last part of the book, however, the cold mechanics of the plot take over, and the quick twists at the end are possibly unsupported. The final twist is unbelievable, actually, and is not emotionally true for the character of Dr. Marina. I think more open endedness and a touch of tragedy would have served the story better. The plot snaps into place so certainly it snuffs out the life of the story. We were headed for someplace great.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Swamplandia! by Karen Russell

Three children visit separate Hells after their mother’s death

The story is about the Bigtree siblings, left adrift after their mother’s death devastates them emotionally and economically.  Their mother, Hilola Bigtree, was the star attraction alligator wrestler at Swamplandia!, the family business. When she dies, the tourists stop coming.  The novel is about what happens next.

Why didn’t I like this more? It sounded right up my alley – Ava Bigtree, the 13 year old alligator wrestler/narrator in a tale where she must descend into the world of the dead to rescue her beloved older sister Ossie who happens to have a date to marry a ghost. And yet, I couldn’t emotionally connect with Ava. The relentless whimsy of the opening section bored me. I much preferred the third person anarchic narration of her brother Kiwi’s adventures on the mainland.

I think I was not drawn to Ava because Ava did not have an internal conflict or struggle to match her vivid external struggle and journey through the swamp. She didn’t feel vulnerable and any vulnerability she possessed felt imposed on her.

The novel was slow going at first, but then I started to recognize the outlines of book’s majestic architecture and got more excited. But there never was a payoff. We had a scarlet alligator, a Birdman who can visit the dead, a rich heiress rescued from a pool of blood – and none of these truly eccentric and great details built to a conclusion. When something terrible happened to Ava near the end of the book, I didn’t care. The novel never came to an emotional climax for me. In the final section, the matter of fact explanation for the mysterious events put us 100 percent back in the world of reality. Apparently all the magical happenings stemmed from Ava’s gullibility and Ossie’s chemical brain imbalance.

It was a love poem to Florida, I’m pretty sure. That part worked. And I loved the fact that all the alligators were called Seth. But reading this book frustrated me.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Arcadia by Lauren Groff

A child cast out of a seemingly idyllic commune cannot get over the rupture

This is the story of Bit, the first child born on the commune of Arcadia in upstate New York.   He is quiet, tiny and precocious. In this novel, we see the world through his eyes – the heroic men and women – mother Hannah and father Abe, the young people who abandoned the straight world and tried to build a new one free of distortions and hang-ups. Only guess what – human nature reasserts itself and there is just as much greed, hypocrisy and power struggle in Arcadia as in the real world.

The first part of the book describes the life on the commune.  The inevitable collapse of Arcadia feels a bit forced and the story peters out after the family leaves.  Also, the forward momentum of the story is not helped by the use of Bit as the narrative consciousness – he’s passive and Christlike.

I have been reading Lauren Groff’s short stories and admired her facility with language, the gorgeousness of it, though sometimes I felt the core of a story was too sentimental, non nutritious. But here the prose was determinedly not showy, sticking to a muted palette of metaphor, the turnips, the tofu, the mud – the stuff you find on a commune. I didn’t buy Bit’s love affair and subsequent child with Helle, the troubled child of Handy, the creepy commune founder. She’s a heroin addict and it wasn’t emotionally set up for me why Bit would be in love with her or have a child with her.

In some ways the most moving part of the story was at the end when Bit's caring for his terminally ill mother was described. She had always been depicted as physically strong and extremely self sufficient. That part felt real and was very moving.

I liked it but the different sections didn't quite gel for me.