Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Three Weissmanns of Westport by Cathleen Schine

A mother and two daughters down on their luck leave Manhattan for the beach

At first I was a little put off – was this “chick lit”?   The antics of the characters seemed unforgivably slight but then I noticed the writing was smooth and concise. Lively. The book was widely promoted as an updated Sense and Sensibility, although I don’t think Jane Austen would have so much “telling.” The story is about Betty Weissmann, the wisecracking matron of the Weissmann family, whose husband, at the age of 78, decides he wants a divorce. Not quite knowing what to do, she takes refuge in the empty beach cottage of a generous relative. Her two daughters, Miranda and Annie, one desperate and broke at the implosion of her brilliant career, the other stuck in the mud, move in with her, live as a family again, and have comic misadventures and misunderstandings about romance.
The supporting characters are all vividly drawn. Eccentric and funny.

The more I read, the more I enjoyed reading it, although there were some very sudden plot movements and coincidental meetings to wrap everything up. I want to read more.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Tender by Mark Childress

The story of Elvis’s childhood, with the emphasis not so much on Elvis, as on childhood

Six hundred pages about Elvis Presley. And only his early years. Really?  Won't that be boring? But to my relief, the novel was compelling, easy to read, and poetic. The first 550 pages flew by. And the book is not technically about Elvis, but about a black haired swivel hipped singer from Tupelo named Leroy Kirby. The plot concerns a talented little boy growing up in Tupelo and Memphis, his love of fine clothes and his dreams of stardom. But the true subject of the novel is childhood, and the way a young child encounters the world of nature and the mystifying world of adults. The Elvis hagiography seamlessly fits into the structure of the story of the little boy growing up.

There are many unique fully rounded characters – the sensitive little mamma’s boy, the hardworking mother, the ne’er do well Dad, the puzzle playing Grandma. The scenes were consistently absorbing. The problem for me came in the last section, after Elvis becomes unbelievably famous and beautiful available girls are popping through the window. That plot problem did not hold a lot of interest for me and it felt like we kept rehashing the situation.

The Elvis story had a tragic end, which is only hinted at here. The engine of the story is mainly Luck.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

An obsessed pedophile comically comments on post war America

I almost wrote, This is about a rapist. Lolita is the story of Humbert Humbert, who is sexually obsessed with pre teen girls. Suddenly Fate throws one in his lap (literally). Her name is Dolores, but in his deluded heart, she is his Lolita. He flees with this reluctant step daughter/concubine across American byways and highways. It’s the tale of a sordid seduction and imprisonment and destruction of a 12 year old girl told by a narrator with a superhuman mastery of English prose. Each sentence was like its own novel, very mean and very funny.

I was uncomfortably appalled (though giggling) until the final part, when Humbert’s world starts falling apart, and he allows himself to accept the enormity of his crime. The book takes a turn into tragedy and greatness at the very end. The feeling of sadness, of important things that are broken and never can be fixed, is much stronger than the satirical tone that underlies most of the book. Do I detect here a Russian sense of crime and punishment and atonement?

I don’t know if I felt sympathy for Humbert but at the end I felt I understood him. His plan for Lolita reads like a synopsis of a child molester textbook.   He isolates her, spoils her, makes her helpless.  Humbert is delusional, selfish, impatient. The book is also a meditation on how evil pedophilia (and maybe lust) is, how it demands an object rather than a living person. Humbert puts his lust first. He only destroys her because fate gives her to him. He’s too much of a mild mannered academic to ever abduct her otherwise.

This is part of my Rereading the Classics and ultimately I felt it was a work of genius, though a little cold and sordid. And what’s with all the Hunters? The book is stuffed with allusions and you could spend years trying to figure them all out.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler

Six members in a book club read the six novels of Jane Austen

This book was delightful to read and worked on many levels. On the surface, it appears to be about a bunch of loveless literary types in Sacramento, clearly Democrats and very politically correct, and their fumblings after romance, but it’s also about how the meanings and themes of the Austen novels bounce off the meanings and themes of this novel.  Maybe it's also about how you should give love a second chance. Finally, the novel is very funny.

In Sacramento, Jocelyn forms the book club and invites her long time friend Sylvia. Long ago, Jocelyn stole Sylvia’s boyfriend (or did Sylvia’s steal Jocelyn’s?). Now Sylvia is about to be divorced from that very same boyfriend, and with that in mind, Jocelyn invites a neatish oddish 40 year bachelor, Grigg, to the book club. Intended for Sylvia? We shall see.

Allegra is Sylvia’s daughter, an accident prone lesbian daredevil who has been unhappy in love. Bernadette, the fifth member, is old and has given up on looks, but seems to have had the most interesting life, with lots and lots of husbands. Prudie, a high school teacher, has the world’s worst mother – and when that mother dies, she is crushed.

The sentences are beautifully written.  The book is narrated in the first person plural, which you don’t often see and which works well.

Also, the discussion questions at the end, which I initially skipped over because I thought they were actual discussion questions, are a hilarious commentary on the novel. As well as American society.