Sunday, December 29, 2013
Can you ever really leave home?
These stories were about Nigerians (mostly woman) either trying to figure out American culture or figure out African men or endure the violent ineptness of Nigerian governance. The newfound wealth of Nigerian society is often in the background. Adichie is a great story teller, full of humor, although not far beneath the surface is an underlying anger about the injustice, corruption and violence. Men hold the power in Africa, and many of the stories conclude by the female main character either fleeing or rejecting the male value system. Though fleeing does not always make for a satisfying ending and a few of the stories were weakened by the neat ending, the slick twist. The only outright angry story is reserved for one about the English guy running a conference of talented African writers – in the workshop he forces his simplistic romantic stereotype of the African native over the writers’ personal pain, their personal story.
The best of these have to do with family. I really liked The Headstrong Historian, which worked on two levels. The first was a story of a mother and grandmother’s love and the second was a pocket history of Nigerian colonization and the vitality of native culture. Cell One, was an indictment of Nigerian corruption, a glimpse into the bad things upper class youth are doing, but at its core it had a universal theme of a family mourning a son gone wrong. There’s nothing they can do to help.
I also liked A Private Experience about an educated Christian girl taking shelter in a riot with an uneducated Muslim woman. Also, I liked Ghosts, about an old man recalling the Biafran conflict. A matter of fact presentation of horrible events. These stories were gripping, completely enjoyable.
Sunday, December 22, 2013
An old man experiences love for the final time
This man, who in his younger years frequented the brothels (twice winning Customer of the Year), decides, for his ninetieth birthday, to give himself the gift of a night with a teenage virgin. But things don’t turn out as expected. First of all, the girl doesn't wake up so he sits by the side of the bed and watches her. He worships her, he worships her youth. In his newfound fever of love, he remembers his life, the women he has loved, his mother. He adopts a cat. The man rescues the girl from her button factory, he buys her a bicycle, he rips up her room in a fury of jealousy. And at the end of the book, it seems, quite unironically, that the two of them live happily ever after.
This legitimately was a short story instead of a novel, but if you’re a Nobel Prize winner they’re going to package what you write as a novel. Nonetheless, it was beautifully written with powerful memorable metaphors and evocative of the sweetness of life. I think this might be about old age. Lovely writing, although the narrator (and perhaps the author?) assumes a 14 year old girl is perfectly content to sell her virginity to an old guy for a few bucks in order to feed her brothers and sisters. The sad part is that this man has lived ninety years and yet never lived at all. Never truly opened himself up to love. He hides out behind his education, his money. And yet, in the end, he has hope.
Sunday, December 15, 2013
Most of these stories are set in the US heartland, but some are set in Northeast Europe, land of ice and snow and winter darkness. What I liked was that, for the most part, the stories are truly original. They don’t feel like anything you’ve read before. The better ones were weirder. The more conventional stories at times fell flat, with an overreliance on medical tragedy. Lots of imagination and ambition here. The writing and characterization are excellent, and the created worlds felt very alive.
I loved Embodied –about a Wells Fargo auditor in Des Moines who knows something big, something big she can’t tell. A tale with a scary twist. Gulf of Aden, Past the Cape of Guardafui had a great title, but the plot was a little sentimental. It Looks Like This uses black and white pictures, like Sebald, to tell a quirky story about a girl and her sick mother and the Amish. Going to Estonia felt very real, about two sad sacks Finns who take a ferry ride, but bleak. Zero Conditional was about an uncredentialled teacher who terrorizes the kids. (Reminded me of Aimee Bender’s novel about an uncredentialled teacher who terrorizes the kids.) This is Not Your City is about a Russian mail order bride trying to figure out an alien culture as well as her teenage daughter. You think it’s about one intractable problem then it turns out to be about another.
Sunday, December 8, 2013
Austerlitz does not have a conventional plot. Yet, all the same, the novel leads you to a place of horror. The nameless narrator tells us of Jacques Austerlitz, an odd scholar who, in bits and pieces, unveils an amazing story; the story of his life. Austerlitz has lived this life in a haze of forgetting, of avoidance. A scholar of the architecture of old Europe, he likes visiting train stations and libraries. Improbably Welsh, Austerlitz comes from a depressive family. One day, on a visit to a deserted train station, he has an unsettling memory. He travels to Prague where he discovers his already half remembered secret. He is not Welsh, but Jewish. His mother had put him on a Kindertransport to the Britain. He survived the Holocaust; they did not.
There is a definite air of spookiness in this book, supported by old weird photographs, imagistic detours, mysterious encounters in old train stations, and long discursive sentences. The effect was soporific, but strangely compelling, and even though I was mildly bored, I couldn’t put down the book. Right in the middle, the meandering story takes a sharp turn towards horror, as the reader realizes that instead of contemplating the architecture of a library we are instead contemplating the architecture of a concentration camp. And after that the novel gets gripping. And the reader realizes we weren’t meandering at all.
I felt as though I was circling around something, getting closer and closer, then at last must face it. European civilization and Nazi brutality. The entire story felt like an unsettling dream.
Sunday, December 1, 2013
An adorable girl becomes a spy
Serena Frome (sounds like plume) is a typical upper class English girl, with something of a head for mathematics. Her mother urges her to apply to Cambridge, where she turns out to be a mathematical mediocrity but also meets the intriguing older married professor Tony Canning. They quickly begin an affair, and she realizes he is also grooming her for a job at MI5. Abruptly and hurtfully, Tony breaks up with her, but Serena does get the spy job. She quickly understands, however, that as a woman, she is nothing more than a glorified secretary. Soon she is once again embroiled in mediocrity. But then she assigned a project – the funding of promising writers in the hopes of their writing a pro Western pro capitalist book. Her project is young Tom Haley. Instantly they feel a connection and become a couple, having great hot sex. Meanwhile, she spies on him the entire time. (An amusing part of the book is excerpts from his short stories). Tom’s new novel, however, is a dystopian view of capitalism. Not at all good for the cause. The secret gets out and Serena is fired and disgraced and Tom is just disgraced.
Sweet Tooth was highly readable, which wasn’t what I was expected. (It certainly didn’t suffer from any of my preconceptions about the English novel). I had never read Ian McEwan before and was expecting a bit of difficulty, but instead this novel was very approachable. Dare I say “middlebrow”? McEwan has great story telling abilities, as well as a satirical bite. Technically, the story telling was proficient, but there was a cost with the ambitious plotting. In some situations, the novel felt mechanistic. Slick and a little soulless. This is a historical novel and a big part was historical details. The miners’ strike and IRA bombs, the crumbling of Serena’s upper class notions. I enjoyed that part.
Can women be spies? Serena is one of the more bumbling spies of all time. And underneath I felt an authorial conviction that well of course women can’t be spies. They’re too stupid. Deep down, Serena was merely an automaton serving up the plot. At the end came the twist, which infuriated me. Can’t a woman, I thought, even an imaginary one, be a woman? Ultimately, this book is a spoof about writing, I guess. Well written, but dopey, cheesey and infuriating.
Saturday, November 23, 2013
An old man comes to grips with a childhood tragedy
Max Morden, mourning the death of his beloved wife, returns to the Irish beach town where he spent childhood vacations, specifically returning to the summer house of the upper class family who obsessed him – the Graces. Carlo Grace, the larger than life father, the beautiful Mrs. Grace, Connie, whom Max immediately crushes on, and the blond twins, both oddballs, blunt Chloe and mute mischievous Myles. Their entourage also included hard Rose, the put upon nanny. This time, Max lets a room in the house alongside with the elderly steely caretaker, Miss Vavasour, and the slightly ridiculous Colonel Blunden. Max is there to confront his memories.
I don’t think I “get” the British novel. Or it’s not my cup of tea. Or something. Lots of times I feel that the action comes to a screeching halt and the characters just sit around nattering. The Sea bogged down about a third of the way in. Despite the jaw droppingly beautiful sentences (requiring extra time to savor), I lost interest in Max. At times I felt becalmed in a sea of lovely language and perfect metaphors. Each character, even the minor ones, was etched in acid and unforgettable. Which is appropriate for a novel about memory. But I didn’t care.
The sea, I presume, is death, the vast thing that must be confronted, but never understood. The tone of the novel is clear and sad.
Sunday, November 17, 2013
What makes a man a man
I enjoyed this book of full bodied generous stories about SoCal men with a liking for Del Taco and predilection for bad choices. Many of these stories I had already read in the little magazines, and unfortunately, for a few, the second reading was a bit duller than the first. But for the remainder I had a deepening appreciation. Los Angeles is the setting for most of them, the freeways and the palm trees and the loquacious dreamers. The standard plot is a dopey LA mick (frankly I didn’t even know that those existed) confronting the world’s cruelties and idiocies. At a certain point the man/boy has to decide if he wants to and if he is capable of growing up. Finally, the stories are funny.
I didn’t really like Elephant Doors – news flash – big Hollywood producer is a douche bag. I liked Bermuda about a good hearted kid who follows an older slightly crazy woman to Bermuda. The vivid settings and the dialogue were wonderful and in the middle the story took off in a completely different direction. I preferred the stories that had more of a plot to them rather than heavily evocative descriptions of meatheads. I also liked Bewildered Decisions in the Time of Mercantile Terror about a crazy guy in Berkeley leaning on his very sane cousin. The final “story” is a two part novella about a father son pair of plumbing salesmen, the father very good at his trade and the son not good at all. Each grieves in his own way for the dead wife and mother. It’s about people scrimping and saving for the American dream. Will they even recognize it once they have it?
Sunday, November 10, 2013
People stumble through a painful world
Six stories about Americans (mostly upper class white Americans by the way) tripping over subterranean sadness. I’m not quite sure if this collection hangs together, although I think it hangs together better than other collections I’ve read recently. Also, the writing is superior. The prose is beautiful and funny and studded with perfectly apt words. The structure of each story is also interesting – much of the time Eisenberg dispenses with exposition. The reader needs to connect the dots herself. And yet each story has a complete emotional effect, with sharp glimpses of beauty and pain. The dialogue, as well, is wonderful and telling.
Two of the stories I wasn’t that crazy about. The title story, Twilight of the Superheroes was about New Yorkers, young people in particular, confronting 9/11 and how the world changed for the worse. It was overtly political, which I welcomed, but the tone seemed pretty obvious. War profiteering is BAD. Revenge of the Dinosaurs, was about an old rich woman dying and her family. That seemed thin. I loved Some Other Better Otto is about an old grouch with a secret sorrow, his schizophrenic sister. He actually has very good reasons for being an old grouch. Like It Or Not is about an awkward blind date/overnight trip on the Italian coast. The people with little to offer – how do they cope? People with the short end of the stick. Life’s losers. There is comfort here but it’s the comfort of saying and observing.
Sunday, November 3, 2013
Fanny Hill, a somewhat wild and uneducated girl, runs away to the big city of London, where she is "assisted" by an unsavory lady who plans to sell her innocence to a disgusting old man. Helpfully, the other girls in the house teach Fanny about the clitoris. Just before consummation of the sale, Fanny encounters the beautiful Charles, who rescues her and sets her up in a private love nest. They enjoy eight months of bliss before Charles is tricked into sailing to the West Indies and disappears. Fanny, however, needs to pay the rent. The rest of the short book (I hesitate to call it a novel) is Fanny’s first person narration of the relationships she contracts with the rich men for money, as well as the dalliances she has with handsome butlers and super endowed homeless guys for free. The story barely has a plot and is basically one sexual tableau after another, illustrating a wide variety of sexual practices. Near the end of the book, Fanny is taking a walk in the park and is able to give the Heimlich maneuver to an old extremely rich guy. Conveniently he dies shortly thereafter, leaving her his fortune, as well as a few financial pointers. As a now rich lady visiting her hometown, who should she encounter but Charles, shipwrecked and impoverished, still smoking hot. The couple reunites, get married and have a ton of kids. And great sex.
I must be a dope because I had no idea this was porn. I thought it was going to be like Moll Flanders. I pulled the book out to read on the plane then put it right back and settled for the inflight magazine. I’m not sure this was a legitimate novel or not. Even though the book was short and entertainingly written, it grew dull to read more than one sex scene at a time. They started to run together. The book is really not much more a collection of highly lyrical descriptions of penises. But Fanny is a legitimate character, spunky and funny. She shares a camaraderie with her girlfriends, many of whom come from (and return to) “respectable” backgrounds.
I’ll never look at Jane Austen the same way again.
Sunday, October 27, 2013
Where the jungle meets civilization
Peruvian soldiers chase rubber smugglers down a jungle river; Indian girls are kidnapped and “civilized”; men patronize a brothel, listening to music and getting drunk. The passionate characters carry the reader along, although I wish I had prepped better before reading the book. I didn’t realize The Green House would be anything but a straight read, but Llosa uses some Modernist techniques such as mixing time periods up within a scene and obscuring identities with nicknames so as a result I had a few head scratching moments. Are there two characters named Lalita? And why do so many of the women have green eyes? Overall, even though at times I was befuddled, I enjoyed the book. The scope was monumental. Europeans versus Indians, men versus women, and power/pleasure seekers versus the religious. The book was full of life.
The people in the town strive after money or love or eternal salvation. Llosa is good at creating full blooded full bodied characters, and is a master of “show, don’t tell.” The book is full of casual violence against women. In fact, I think the primary plot is how male society conspires to pulverize the life of a sweet innocent Indian girl. The gang rapes are horrifying and presented as somewhat light hearted boys will be boys behavior. In this town, girls should travel in packs if they don’t want to be raped. But the women’s pain from the treatment of the men (who are in the grip of machismo) is so clearly rendered. That’s a dissonance that says a lot.
This book demands a rereading.
Saturday, October 19, 2013
Highly imaginative original stories
I truly admired Reeling for the Empire, a haunting and surreal story about young girls tricked into becoming silkworms. It had a well shaped plot wedded to a fruitful idea – the exploitation of people, women in particular, for profit. Once the girls become silkworms, they find a powerful physical relief in the silkmaking process, though they mourn the theft of their youth and beauty and exact a terrible revenge. This story was beautiful, lyrical. Angry. The title story, Vampires in the Lemon Grove, was also moving and original, though a little bit precious. The rest of them, until I quit reading anyway, were duds. That is, their cold ambitious structures petered out and lacked an emotionally satisfying conclusion.
The stories didn’t resonate for me in the same way that Russell’s novel didn’t resonate for me. The imaginative machinery, however impressive and unique, did not have an opening for the emotions and so made the journey flat out dull. I bailed early because I wasn’t going to make the same mistake I made with the novel where I gutted it out to an unsatisfying conclusion.
How can JM Coetzee write a page about two cousins spending the night in the cab of an old truck and it is incredibly moving and here a hole opens in the space time continuum and you feel nothing?
Sunday, October 13, 2013
Two friends look for a zombie
Vermaelen, the philosophical narrator, helps his friend Mazoch search for his father after a zombie outbreak in humid Baton Rouge. Meanwhile, Rachel, Vermaelen’s girlfriend, is worried about the violence Mazoch might have in mind once he finds his father. During a week of searching, Vermaelen and Mazoch chat, play chess, poke their heads into deserted malls. Occasionally at a far distance a slow stumbling zombie appears, but for the most part the two young men observe the zombies through binoculars or Youtube.
This sufficed as an amusing satirical essay about zombies (and perhaps America) but failed as fiction. I’m not even sure A Questionable Shape makes a credible feint towards being a novel, let alone a zombie novel. The main problem, I think, is that the three main characters are painted in pale pale watercolors, and these pale creatures were not compelling enough for me to enter the dream of the story. The writer must not give the reader a choice. I understood a little of the philosophical organization of the book, but it's supposed to be a zombie novel about zombies so the fancy ruminations must be lashed to a plot that will carry the reader along. My heart sank when I saw the footnotes.
As the last pages approached, I realized we were not going to get even one bite. And fiction needs blood.
Sunday, October 6, 2013
Being the perfect wife is stressful.
Karen Fry is a young wife and mother in Brentwood during the 1960’s. But it is clear, especially to herself, that Karen falls woefully short of the high homemaking standards expected by her Latter Day Saints in-laws. Partly to get away from their opprobrium, she takes her two small children on afternoon trips around LA, applying for wacky jobs, such as receptionist in a cat hotel and fortune teller on Santa Monica Pier. Little by little, however, she learns her conventional in-laws, especially the wives, have some strong internal pressures needing release. Also, she and her brother-in-law begin a strange affair.
Reading this makes me very glad I wasn’t a wife in the 60s. It doesn’t sound like that great a time for women. Or at least for women’s self expression. I wanted to read an early Diane Johnson novel, mostly for historical reasons, but then after I had finished the first chapter I thought, Another wonderful Diane Johnson book. The scenes are “zany," satirical and full of high energy. Also, there is a classic Johnson BIG scene at the end which ends up with Karen and the kids moving to live in a mail truck at the beach. The final image is that of an “extraordinary, inspired sand castle” she and the children have built.
Sunday, September 29, 2013
Short stories about a devout Southern mom conflicted about adultery
This collection was uneven but when the stories were good they were very good – about sex and sin and God. Honest and raw and powerful. With an entertaining degree of quirk. The lesser stories overrelied on cancer or other unfair harsh life interruptions – a kind of disaster porn. (Don’t let the circumstances be the story.) For the most part, the settings are on a mountaintop city bordering Georgia and Tennessee. Lookout Mountain. The chronicled obsessions are running, religion and phone sex.
My favorites were the linked short-shorts, Imperfections, You Look Like Jesus, and Relatives of God. There's a freedom in the prose, a humor and a ruefulness that is quite evocative. I also liked Demolition, about a town remaking the church and its sexual mores. Like Demolition, the collection includes a number of “surreal” stories, which also work well, although I preferred the emotional vulnerability of the adultery stories. Decomposition combines both - a more experimental thought piece on adultery. Ladies and Gentlemen of the Pavement – a surreal meditation on running and a race. You know, like life. 1.7 to Tennessee, felt a little stagey to me, about an old lady mad at GW Bush. My enthusiasm waned as the book went on.
Sunday, September 22, 2013
Privileged people make their way around early Depression Manhattan
Gloria Wandrous, a good time gal, wakes up one morning in Weston Liggett’s bed. The night before he foolishly took her to the apartment he shares with his wife and children. Her dress now ripped down the front, Gloria steals the wife’s fur coat so she can take a cab home. The rest of the novel is nominally Weston’s search to get the coat back, and let Gloria know he can’t live without her, as well as Gloria’s halfhearted attempts to avoid him. The reader encounters many other characters, from Gloria’s writer pal Eddie to the Irish Catholic Farleys. Also a creepy Dr. Reddington seems to be following Gloria around. Virtually everyone is rich and sophisticated. College educated, at least. It’s 1930 and the stock market has crashed. People are frightened but the worst is yet to come yet. By the end of the book, Weston has met up with Gloria, though their story ends abruptly and somewhat puzzlingly.
BUtterfield 8 must have been the Bright Lights, Big City of its day. The New York sophisticate setting and rather amoral characters also reminded me of The Great Gatsby, however a Gatsby lacking overweening literary ambition and a perfect plot. This book was all about the great dialogue, with comparatively few descriptions or interior monologues. Gloria’s story is primary, but the book really is about New Yorkers accepting the new reality of the depression.
And the drinking – wow. All these people do is go to speakeasies. No wonder there was no respect for the law. The Depression has started, has begun to affect lives, but it doesn’t seem to be taken seriously yet. But there are hints of worse things to come. O’Hara was a bit of a soothsayer since the book was written in 1935, well before World War II. The “sophisticated” attitude felt dated, although the writing was very skillful. The “shocking” bits got a little tiresome too, the casual sex, the near constant drinking, the abortion. However, this novel would definitely be of interest for the history of women in America.
BUtterfield 8 lacked a legitimate plot and I missed that. And the ending is just plain stupid. So what exactly did you want to say about Gloria Wandrous, Mr. O’Hara? The interesting thing is that there is an implication that her promiscuity has been tipped off by an incident of sexually abuse in her childhood. Sounds like child abuse has been happening for a while. That part actually felt pretty modern. In the end, however, I never really cared for Gloria Wandrous or for what happened to her.
Saturday, September 14, 2013
Merivel and Charles II continue their adventures, though this time they are old
Robert Merivel, seventeen years after returning to his estate with his infant daughter, has come to a crossroads. His beloved daughter will be leaving for an extended period, and Merivel doesn’t know what to do with himself. His faithful servant Will (suffering from dementia or at the very least old age) brings him the Wedge. The Wedge is Merivel’s account of his adventures written seventeen years before. Or as we know it, Restoration. In order to enjoy Merivel, I don’t think it is necessary to have read Restoration, as this is a standalone book, but it would be helpful and add to the enjoyment, as themes of proper behavior, equality, and sex echo and bounce off each other. Contemplating the Wedge encourages Merivel to take up his adventures once again.
Reading this book was such a pleasure (the pages flew by) that it made me realize I have been lately reading books that are a chore. Part of the reason is that Merivel (and his mentor Charles II) enjoy life so much and that love of life is communicated to the reader. We follow Merivel on his adventures to Versailles, with a captive bear, to Switzerland, and to London again to the death of the king. The pleasure of reading the book comes from Merivel's unique take on things – there isn’t a traditional plot, apart from time wearing things down. However, I think Restoration is probably the greater book - there is a clear cut tension between the life approaches taken by the King and by Merivel's good friend, the Quaker Pearse.
One of the reasons why I admire Rose Tremain is that all of her novels are completely unique. She excels in character creation, and this book recycled the same characters but they are growing older. Merivel is foolish and wise at the same time.
Sunday, September 8, 2013
A poor young woman from the 18th century doesn’t have a lot of choices
Mary Saunders, our heroine, a young girl from Georgian London, loves fancy clothes. Her desire for a scarlet ribbon radically changes her life. A stinky old peddler tricks her into trading her virginity, not for the longed for red ribbon, but for a brown one. Once Mary is revealed to be pregnant, her mother tosses her from the house. That night she is raped by a gang of soldiers and is taken in by the generous street whore Doll. What will Mary do for money? She has very little choice but to become a prostitute.
I kept trying to figure out why this book was such a chore to read, even though the prose was of high caliber, and the supporting characters were distinct and entertaining. The researched historical details fit skillfully into the story and were not at all distracting. So why didn’t I like it? Was it because Mary was not very nice? Was it because she was somewhat passive? Or was it because some of Mary’s most important actions not feel quite supported or motivated? Maybe it because the Prologue lets us know that Mary is doomed from the get go so why bother caring?
There wasn’t a lot of interiority in this book, just scene after scene where one awful thing after another happens to Mary. The section that held my interest was when Mary, without undergoing genuine repentance and only to escape a cold winter on the streets, finds shelter in a Magdalene house. There she finds out she is skilled at sewing and gets a glimmer of what life off the streets might be like. But she can’t take the subservient respectability and asks to be released. She puts on a mask and pretends to be good (and at times seems like she might actually commit to being good) but mostly she despises the other characters. This contempt might have been the stumbling block for me.
A couple of plot twists needed to move the story along felt unrealistic. The first one has her flee London, the second seals her doom. While I cared about many of the supporting characters, I did not really care what happened to Mary. I watched with a horrified semi fascination.
Sunday, September 1, 2013
A boy confronts evil in the world
This was partly an issue novel, designed to publicize a serious social problem, in this case the appalling confusion of police and judicial authorities on Native American reservations, resulting, among other things, in thousands (?) of rape suspects walking away scot free, without fear of arrest, prosecution or punishment. The Round House is the story of Joe Coutts, who recounts the story of his family when he was thirteen years old. That summer, his mother is brutally raped, but she is unable to identify the rapist, as well as exactly where she was raped. This, of course, has a huge impact on the investigation. She falls into a deep depression, which frightens her husband and Joe. Over time, though, she identifies her assailant. Then Joe has to figure out what to do.
I had mixed feelings about this book. Beautiful writing and vivid characters, such as the folklore telling Grampa and the priest who was horribly burned in Iraq, bump up against a hastily thrown together plot. The ending felt tacked on. The whole endeavor felt rushed. And also, I did not understand Joe’s dilemma of revenge and so could not get into what he was feeling. He seemed too young to understand what was happening, both emotionally and legally. His father, a tribal judge, was there to explain the legal part, but that wasn't very compelling for the reader.
This also has to be one of the most unambiguous rape plot of all time – a saintly educated mom gets brutally raped by a monstrous white supremacist. That is perhaps why it was hard for me to believe that nothing could be done to prosecute the man, and therefore motivate Joe to do what he did.
Sunday, August 25, 2013
The second Mrs. DeWinter is haunted by the first
Our story begins when the young penniless unnamed narrator is working on the Riviera as a companion to a dreadful American woman, and older somewhat notorious Max de Winter, owner of the iconic estate Manderley, takes an interest in her. He seems to need something. (I’m asking you to marry me, you silly fool!) After a European honeymoon, the newlyweds return to Manderley (a house as much a character as any person in the book). Our heroine is thoroughly intimidated by the pomp and luxury, the terrifying skull-like housekeeper Mrs. Danvers, and soon by the vivid memory of Max’s first wife, the beautiful competent vivacious Rebecca. She overexcites herself imagining Rebecca, (in fact, by creating a vision of Rebecca, she is working almost as a novelist herself). The initial part of the book is a study in paranoia.
This one moves like a house afire. The opening half is cleverly done, with over the top Gothic touches, Jane Eyrish in the extreme. What’s memorable is the narrator. The second Mrs. de Winter experiences things as if in a fever. She’s a completely spineless drip in the first half, then after the “revelation,” she gets more backbone. I enjoyed the crazy first part more than the second, in which a leaden sort of “Colonel Mustard in the billiard room” structure takes over. I had read Rebecca a long time ago, and had forgotten the twist – and what a twist it was, however, it’s a deeply politically incorrect twist that doesn’t work in the modern day world of sexual freedom and feminism. After the revelation, I was totally on Rebecca’s side against the obliterating patriarchy and the judicial system set up to favor rich men. Also, the book is a little overlong for current tastes.
But du Maurier uses rhododendroms in a really cool way. The story is about how the memory of a fully developed woman frightens a yet to be developed girl.
Sunday, August 18, 2013
A Jewish American family can only look on as the mother eats herself to death
Edie Middlestein is a Midwest lawyer, as a child especially fond of her skinny immigrant father. Always has she found comfort in food – deep soul-stilling comfort. The problem is that her eating gets out of control, dictates her behavior, making her deathly ill, and driving away her husband in disgust. Edie’s children, especially her daughter, cannot countenance her dad's betrayal. But Edie still has some secrets of her own. Not everybody is disgusted at her obesity.
The charm in this was not the “Lifetime TV” or medical aspects of this story, it was how the story was told - in bits and pieces, not straight on. The novel is constructed of small sections told from different perspectives, as well as different time periods. I was sucked in immediately. Nominally the novel is about a woman who can’t stop eating, but it’s actually about a Midwestern Jewish family. It’s actually sort of about America. Jami Attenberg is a master at storytelling. Virtually every person encountered between the pages is sharply characterized. The Middlesteins are mixture of likeability and weakness(much like real people).
The Middlesteins continues my streak of good books. Although the stakes in this one felt slighter. Perhaps because Edie Middlestein is mostly unsympathetic, prone to a grim outlook on life.
Monday, August 12, 2013
A girl remembers something about her sister, something society and her father would rather she forget
Four great books in a row. Now this is a streak I like. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is about the Cooke family: primate researcher Dad, loving Mom, betrayed and angry older brother Lowell and trying-to-understand-it-all narrator Rosemary. The family, however, is incomplete. There was a second daughter, Fern, raised with Rosemary as a twin. One day, when Rosemary was five, she awoke in an entirely new house, with Fern gone, never to be seen or spoken about again. Gone as well are the teams of graduate students who were always writing down and measuring whatever the twins did. Terminated science experiment or abducted child? The book is set in 1996 when Rosemary goes to college at UC Davis, escaping from the memories of her sad unhappy Midwest home. A desultory student, she quickly gets involved with a cute troublemaker and ends up in jail. Meanwhile, big brother Lowell has become a fugitive because of his violent animal rights activities.
The novel kicks off when Rosemary’s sad mother entrusts her with her journals. The suitcase with the journal gets lost in transit, comically serving as the novel’s clock. Rosemary starts to question things about her childhood, and encounters Lowell once again. The plot is excellent,unique and weird, though I’m not sure if all the ends are completely tied up. There is Rosemary's search for Fern, and then there's a lot of philosophical questions. What is meant by captivity? What is meant by "human"? Her entire life, Rosemary is made distinct by being the monkey girl. Like some of J.M. Coetzee's books, this book has an pretty insistent animal rights subtext. So what's the conclusion? No more animal experimentation? Definitely that. But what else, No more burgers? No more unthinking dominion by the humans? No more humans?
The difference between Fern and Rosemary is that Rosemary can talk. (One of the conceits is that as a child Rosemary never shut up, though as an adult she has learned to keep her tongue.) Fern, however, is hairier,stronger. Much stronger. She can climb walls. The facts of the plot are presented, though these facts are somewhat ambiguously weighed. Once she reaches a certain age, Fern can kill a person in a few minutes, especially someone small and weak. What does the family do after five year old Rosemary feels threatened? What should the family do?
Rewarding and funny, this is a novel that should be reread.
Sunday, August 4, 2013
An orphan brightens the life of two lonely old people.
Three great books in a row – I have been fortunate. Why were these past three novels gripping and not mired in tedious mediocrity? What they had in common were monumental characters with a deep unstoppable yearning, set against an elemental landscape. That’s certainly the case with Anne of Green Gables. The simple story is about Anne Shirley, a red headed orphan, who falls into the lonely lives of Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert. Instead of the sturdy orphan boy the Cuthberts want to “take in” to help with the chores, only a girl waits at the train station. Anne is a nonstop talker, a spunky eleven year old who charms laconic Matthew on the drive to the farm. She is on the hunt for a “kindred spirit.” Later, Marilla, determined to return the unwanted girl to the orphanage, loses heart, gets squeamish at the idea of sending her into to a life of cruel hardship. And so makes a promise to educate her.
The rest of the book consists of Anne and her entertaining scrapes (accidentally dying her hair green, almost drowning while pretending to be Ophelia). Another plot thread is Anne’s very competitive relationship with Gilbert Blythe who made the mistake of calling her “Carrots” on their first meeting. She freezes him out for seven years (something about that almost moves this book from the children’s literature category). The prose was clear, with lots of nice descriptions of Prince Edward Island.
I cried in every chapter, although it is true I was reading the book on a plane and drinking gin and tonics. Though I would not call this a sentimental book. The heart of it is true – there are spunky orphans and there are lonely old people who have wasted their lives. As Anne grows older, however, and is introduced more to the hard truths of the world, her crazy optimistic charm dissipates leaving behind a strength.
Monday, July 29, 2013
An awkward young writer returns home to South Africa
Like Coetzee's previous work Elizabeth Costello, which made no effort towards a plot and consisted mostly of lectures, Summertime begs the question, “Is this even a novel?” Nominally, the book is an autobiography/memoir, presented as a series of interviews with key people (primarily women) in awkward young John Coetzee’s life. In the 1970’s, John has returned to South Africa, to live with his father in a small house, in a cloud of unnamed disgrace, after his career is cut short in America by a scandal not to be discussed. Meanwhile, South Africa his country is falling apart. The social experiment of apartheid has failed. The ambitious whites are getting passports to sunny different lands. Meanwhile, what is to become of the “unambitious” ones, the people of the land?
This is a novel because it presents a pattern of imagined characters, characters who yearn. The character of John Coetzee is not the centerpiece. John is a puzzling monosyllabic eccentric, a more than a little creepy young man who passes through these fully imagined women’s lives. The women are the striking ones here – John’s cousin Margot, loyal to the land, her husband and the workers on the farm. She is a hero. There are also “interviews” with a younger woman his lover, and a ballet teacher he gets obsessed with. The novel is the stories of these strong women, and their stories have very little to do with John Coetzee. So maybe the whole “autobiography” thing is a joke. (Also, as a matter of fact, one of the conceits of the book is that John has died.) In some ways, this is a portrait of South African womanhood (whites only). From time to time in their stories, these women encountered apartheid, the separation of the races, and the humiliation of the Colored as well as the embarrassment of the whites. The women are the ones with the deep feelings here. John Coetzee’s chronology is just the excuse for them to tell their compelling stories.
Although you have to be a brilliant writer to get away with this patently gimmicky a structure. And I think Coetzee is.
Sunday, July 21, 2013
An innocent races through the Seventies
Wow. I guess this is what is meant by a tour de force. The Flamethrowers was very good. "Reno," the young narrator, likes motorcycles, skiing, making art of lines, making art of her life. She works as a “China girl” at a film store, her anonymous image used as a test of Caucasian skin tones. After moving to New York, lonely "Reno" is spotted by Sandro, an older Italian artist, heir to a rubber and motorcycle fortune, who selects her to be his lover. Through Sandro, she is introduced to the heart of the art world, first class motorcycle racing, and excellent hand jobs. When she accompanies a reluctant Sandro back to Italy, back to the family estate, she meets his dreadful mother and brother and witnesses the labor unrest of Italy of the Seventies. Later, “Reno” gets involved in shady violent anti-capitalist actions. She returns to New York, older and wiser.
The Flamethrowers is, among other things, a novel of ideas. The main one being: Rubber + sweat = tires; Tires + war = money; money + leisure = art. Secondly, it is a historical fiction, recreating a time and place filled with fully imagined eccentric characters. And finally, the book is a demonstration of bravura writing. The novel is filled with brilliantly executed set pieces. The races at Bonneville, the numerous bar scenes with the voluble artists and their illuminating stories, the riot in Rome. I kept having to stop and reread passages. Also, I enjoyed the thoughtful architectural use of imagery. Images are repeated throughout the book – flamethrowers, motorcycles, a hat. A snow covered mountain. A snow covered mountain at night. One of the themes is women trying to figure out men, figure out the world. In this story, all the characters tell stories. Very entertaining pretty much unbelievable stories.
One quibble: The plot requires that “Reno” understand Italian and I didn’t buy that this working class girl spent junior year abroad in Firenze. But it took me quite a while to come up with that. Overall, a really stellar novel.
Sunday, July 14, 2013
Two families, one white, one brown, one rich, one poor, live parallel lives in Topanga Canyon.
The Mossbachers, Delaney and Kyra, live in a new exurban development in one of the rugged canyons northwest of Los Angeles. Desperately poor illegal immigrants Candido and America Rincon camp under a tree near the same development. The novel opens with a car accident, Candido bouncing off the hood of Delaney’s luxury vehicle. Things go downhill for Candido after that. Way downhill. But he still keeps a strong optimism in the idea of America (the country and his wife).
This was a well crafted socially conscious book that I found dull. Possibly because all characters behaved completely as expected, clicking like the gears of a clock. Every single one of them had a placard around their neck. Delaney was an environmentally responsible chardonnay sipping type, Kyra was an ambitious real estate agent, Candido an optimistic immigrant, America was a beautiful earth mother (literally). I wanted to be surprised. I wanted the Mexicans to have some shading, and for the most part they were oppressed saints. However, I admire the ambition and the execution of the novel – many characters, well delineated from all classes of society. And very tactile descriptions of both the bad things that the Mexican family endures and the consumerist overload the white family experiences. The novel does confront a social question, but there wasn’t a lot of rage here. And I think rage is called for.
Also, I love flood scenes in books and this one had a great one.
Saturday, July 6, 2013
Story of a life
This short novel describes Elsa Emerson’s life journey: from starring in her father’s Wisconsin barn theater to struggling as an actor in Hollywood to changing her name to Laura Lamont to becoming a movie star to working as a lowly assistant in a hat shop. My initial impression was that the characterization was simplistic and the pacing dragged, despite the injected Tinsletown glamour, but as I started to recognize the scope and breadth of the story (it’s not just about glamour), it became apparent that the story was a little deeper, a little more unsettling than the one advertised on the book jacket. There is not a traditional plot. Events transpire, but those events didn’t build to a thematic or emotional conclusion. Typical obstacles – such as how do you go from being an unknown actress to a world famous movie star were solved like magic – simply go to a studio party. A powerful producer sees you across a crowded room, and despite your extreme pregnancy immediately makes you a movie star. Then marries you.
However, deep quirkiness lurked here, as well as random tragedies: a suicide, a mental breakdown, alcoholism. Things aren’t so hunky dory in Laura Lamont land, if they ever were. Bad things happen, and the bad things are as undeserved as the good things. Much like real life.
Although the tragedies never dig deep, never quite draw blood. They are described, but I really didn’t feel them, and the painful events seem to glance off Laura Lamont’s psyche. The style is somewhat offputting – we never really dig into anyone’s motivations, though I did feel that the Wisconsin sections are more alive than the Hollywood sections. Laura Lamont only feels like a real person back in the Midwest. Perhaps because she is always playing a role in Hollywood. Ultimately this book felt slight.
Sunday, June 30, 2013
Tenar, the high priestess to the Powers of the Earth, loses her faith when a wizard penetrates the Tombs of Atuan
Everyone kept telling me I needed to read Ursula K. Le Guin, that she was as good as any literary writer. So I read The Tombs of Atuan. A short novel, the prose was beautiful, tactile, spare and meaningful, and the plot was gripping, but there was a dragon in it, ok? I’m too old for dragons.
In a faraway land, a high priestess dies. In the same way a new Dalai Lama is appointed, the high priestess' acolytes search for the reincarnation of her soul in the country's new babies. The child Tenar is found, chosen, symbolically beheaded (in a wonderfully depicted scene) and is renamed “Arha”, the Eaten One. She spends the rest of her childhood figuring out the rituals and secrets of her religion. Arha is the guardian of the labyrinth, the Tombs of Atuan. It is her job to memorize the twists and turns of the dark tunnels. Light is forbidden. Kossil, the High Priestess of the powerful Godking, is her enemy/tutor. After Arha, to prove her toughness, lets three prisoners die a dismal death, she starts losing heart, and the discovery of a trespasser in the tombs, Ged, causes her to question her faith, her purpose. This blasphemy committed in the tombs causes the world to collapse. So perhaps the Gods, or the Powers of the Earth, are real after all. Arha becomes Tenar again, and she follows Ged to his world.
This was a story about learning and knowledge, about re-evaluating one's acceptance of the received truth. Upon second thought, the dragon was an alleged dragon, so I will be open to reading more Ursula K. Le Guin.
Sunday, June 23, 2013
The documentation of the known and unknown
Dusklands is comprised of twin novellas. In the first, a Vietnam War researcher documents his experience of studying propaganda techniques. Then he goes mad. In the second, an eighteenth century Boer settler in South Africa documents his experience meeting an unconquered Hottentot/Namaqua tribe. Then he goes mad. In the first story, Eugene Dawn works on a paper analyzing the effectiveness of American propaganda. But his narrative is far more concerned with his awful wife, misogynistically portrayed, and their (her?) son (Dawn seems strangely detached from the boy). Dawn is also tormented by Coetzee, his superior at work. The story ends badly. The Vietnam theme is a little dated – the motivating passions are not clearly explained, except for the technologically superior society destroying the farmers. Yet who is the victor?
The second novella was more compelling, a gripping journey into the human soul. Jacobus Coetzee and his domesticated Hottentots enter the uncharted desert and encounter a Namaqua tribe who has never before seen a white man. That is, they don’t know they are supposed to bow down. Coetzee thinks he is in control, but immediately is stripped of his cattle, his servants and his pride. He is humiliated, much as the narrators in Disgrace and Waiting for the Barbarians, were humiliated. The physical body betrays them, and without imperalistic civilization as a framework, they are worth nothing. Coetzee escapes, then returns to the desert and exacts a terrible revenge. But as he does so, his heart is not in it.
This book is about men who think they have things figured out, then it becomes apparent they have NOTHING figured out. This ignorance extends not only to the narrators of the “documents” but the “editor” of the historical “documents” (who cannot understand their meaning). Does this also extend to the reader of the “documents”?
As usual, the real strength is the bold uncompromising prose lacking any sentimentality. There are also metafictional tricks here, as "Coetzee" the character appears in both novellas. Also there is a conceit that the “documents,” written by obvious madman, were discovered and published with no reference to the obvious madness. There are similar themes as in other Coetzee work-- a playful literary trickiness, a faux documentary narration, uncontrollable sexual yearning, and the tension between civilization and brutality. The editor of the Jacobus Coetzee section laments the fact the Americans were able to kill all their natives, unlike the Boers, who must continue to live with theirs.
Sunday, June 16, 2013
A spiritual journey, accented with upscale details
Eat, Pray, Love is a memoir, although it’s almost a “memoir in a can.” The structure of the book is preconceived, made to order -- nothing out of the ordinary had happened to Elizabeth Gilbert before she decided to have some experiences and write a book about them. Feeling deeply depressed at the end of her marriage, she comes up with a book proposal, gets a big advance, travels to three different countries, undergoes three different types of instruction, and then writes the book. A cold blooded description like this might sound as if I hated it. Anyway, I loved it. Elizabeth Gilbert is a delightful non didactic writer, and the prose is engaging and readable. Technically this book is a travelogue: four months in Italy, four months in India, four months in Indonesia.
A successful memoir needs three essential things – talented writing, an interesting story with high stakes, but ideally there should be a spiritual transformation, a redemption, a change. Otherwise, what’s the educational point of the interesting story? In this case, the shocking experience is Gilbert’s realization that, unlike what she communicated to her husband (and probably to herself), she does NOT want to have a baby and a white picket fence and an affluent suburban American life. Her husband is disbelieving at first, then angry. He demands penitence and he demands money. To recover from this battle, she takes a self designed world tour.
A travelogue allows the reader to enjoy a descriptive and historical account of a foreign land. We learn something, we revel in the alien sensuality of another world, but at the same time there’s an underlying comfort, a quiet security – thank God I’m in the US, home of the air conditioned flush toilet and twenty four hour hot coffee. Gilbert visits Italy where she learns to speak rudimentary Italian and eats incredible pizza. She visits her ashram in India where she chants, eats no meat, and occasionally glimpses Nirvana. Finally, she goes, almost on a whim, to Bali, where she rides her bike, studies with a medicine man, and meets a grizzled Brazilian, who offers her the calm she is looking for. He can repair her heart. Perhaps the ending is too neat, but it didn’t feel that way.
Saturday, June 8, 2013
The point of this short story collection is the voice, readable and funny and vulnerable. The lyrical voice pulls you along, the reader identifying with the smart smartass narrator Yunior. The dialogue is also incisive. I read many of these stories separately in different magazines and loved them, however, reading them one after the other, I felt the power was dissipated. (Perhaps that is the case with all story collections) There was a sort of sameness to them. The stories are about romantic love, unrequited love for the most part. I began to see that maybe the subject of love is slight and one note.
The stories are also about machismo, the Dominican variety, and how Yunior both identifies and is trapped by the family expectations on how a Dominican man is supposed to behave. His cruel tomcatting father is one thing but his beloved doomed older brother, Rafa, who also treats women terribly and whom Yunior adores, is another. Are you less of a man to be faithful to one woman? To give your power away? And what about the brotherhood? Fidelity is not looked upon honorably. I loved The Sun, the Moon and the Stars, in which a guy realizes he really blew it when he cheated on his fiancé. She won’t forgive him. Miss Lora, in which precocious high school student Junior becomes the (unwilling) lover of a skinny older teacher, was also wonderful. And The Cheaters Guide to Love – regret imparts an instant spine to this story.
Monday, June 3, 2013
A WASP wedding
This novel takes place on a Martha Vineyardish island during three days of preparations for the oldest Van Meter daughter’s wedding. A beach, a wedding, a quartet of pretty blonde girls. Hmm, could this be chick lit? But the prose is accomplished, the many characters are expertly delineated, and some of the subplots are subversive. Could this be literary fiction? The central narrative consciousness is proper Bostonian Winn Van Meter. My main issue with the book is that Winn struck me as so insecure and phony, that I kept waiting for a Clark Rockefeller he’s-not-really-a-WASP plot line. However, apparently Winn actually is a legitimate WASP and the main plotline becomes can he keep his hands off a cockteasing bridesmaid. That’s dull. What kept me reading was the many nonconforming minor characters, the disabled girl, the Coptic graduate student, the crusty old Granma (now she struck me as a real WASP). The subplots were many times more interesting than the main plot.
Winn is an uninteresting black hole right at the center of the novel. I couldn’t understand why his wife stayed with him. He’s obsessed with getting into the exclusive golf club – stakes like that are too low. The cockteasing bridesmaid was one-note and I couldn’t understand why he was attracted to her. The final scene with the two of them drunkenly crawling around the roof of a mansion is large, violent, and, as in many debut novels, not sufficiently motivated. However, in the course of the book a dead whale blows up, which is kind of cool. My question is, I think, does a talented writer have an obligation to take on big ideas when drafting a novel? Because I don’t think playing around with pretty paper dolls is sufficient.
Sunday, May 26, 2013
Teen depravity in LA
Clay, an 18 year old on his Christmas break from a New England college, revisits his Beverly Hills haunts with his high school friends, witnessing excessive materiality and blatant soullessness. This was a close cousin, an echo even, of Play It As It Lays, both in lyrical prose style, and shell shocked attitude, but the stakes in this particular story were minuscule. In Play It As It Lays, Maria is dealing with a mentally ill child, a botched abortion and truly evil people. Eighteen year old Clay is dealing with too many toys and the sentimental memory of Granma’s cancer. Scenes grew boring, ripe for parody. The little jerks his friends are ridiculous, though I kept reading, compelled because this was the rare novel, debut novel especially, that got better as it went on. Clay’s adventures around West LA built to a climax. A climax of horror, really. However, ultimately the stakes may have been too low. The writing is assured and clever, but I had trouble telling all the characters (the little brats especially) apart. I will read more of Ellis, however.
Sunday, May 19, 2013
Robert Merivel grows up
Robert Merivel, a mediocre medical student, accidentally cures King Charles’ beloved dog, and endears himself to the King with his goofball “Foolish” behavior. Merivel's friendship with the monarch comes in handy when the King's primary mistress becomes jealous of his secondary mistress, young Celia, so he has need of an amiable cuckold to make it appear Celia is out of his hands. Ah, Merivel. The king gives Merivel a beautiful estate in the country, which Merivel then redecorates in gaudy colors, spending money with abandon, and beginning an affair with the noble wife across the way. Then a complication. Celia has been too demanding of the King, making ultimatums, forgetting the hierarchy, and she is punished by an exile to her “husband.” Merivel is delighted, but makes a key mistake. He falls in love/lust with her, attempting to kiss her. The king becomes enraged, Merivel is kicked out of his estate, exiled from London, and must do penance as a doctor at his friend Pearce’s insane asylum, while plague is raging outside the walls. Once again, at the asylum, even after many months of good behavior, Merivel makes a lustful misjudgment, knocking up a comely madwoman. This time the penance is to marry her. Merivel and his wife return to London where he witnesses the Great Fire of London.
As usual with Rose Tremain’s books, this was an excellent novel that worked on many levels – a morality tale, a historical fiction, a story of self awareness. Each character, even the numerous minor ones, are quirkily and completely imagined, their motivations entirely believable. The King, a thoughtful monarch and libertine, is motivated by divine order (lucky for him). Merivel is motivated by lust. Pearce is motivated by Jesus. Celia is motivated by love of the King.
It reminded me very much of Samuel Pepys' diary, that is, the story of a curious lustful young man, who just happens to witness the great events of his day, the return of Charles the Second, the Plague, the Great Fire of London. Yet given equal weight in the entries are his constant interest in screwing chambermaids and his deep love for his devout little French wife. Merivel’s joy in living is what gets the reader involved, rooting for him, because he’s something of a careless dope. I wasn’t quite sure what happened at the end – it seems that Merivel is restored to the beautiful estate after his wandering penance and taking responsibility for his red headed child.
Saturday, May 11, 2013
A woman starts living a new life, familiar but not quite
Elisa/Lisa is driving home from a visit to her son’s grave when suddenly her car is a different model, she’s gained weight, and there's gum in her mouth when there wasn't before. What just happened? She takes the transformation in stride (pretty much), rummaging through her familiar purse for clues to her new unfamiliar life. She becomes a detective at that point and much of the story momentum comes her figuring out her new job, her new/old husband who seems to be much more sexually in love with her, and the new marital therapist fond of culty aphorisms. Most importantly, Elisa must come to terms with the fact that, in this universe, her dead son is alive, but estranged from her. Her mildly unhappy life has been traded for another mildly unhappy life – same Elisa, same town, same family, but the configuration of elements is different. Secretly she begins investigating what might have happened – a wormhole to a parallel universe perhaps. Meanwhile, her therapist reveals that the Elisa in the parallel universe is also an Elisa prone to psychotic breaks. (Is that what happened then?) Her search brings her into the company of unconventional conspiracy sci-fi types, oddballs. After a while, she realizes she may not want to go back.
The novel was very gripping for the first three fourths or so, hard to put down. The prose style was plain, but evocative and powerful. No literary metaphors, no imagery. But the for the most part realistic story raised a number of important questions, about identity, about marriage, about family. About reality. The tension in the plot reminded me of Ben Marcus, although there is a smidgen more humor here, especially in the descriptions of the nerds and geeks. A video game plays a prominent role in the novel, and many times, the novel feels like a video game. Things can be rebooted. Who are you? It makes you think – that could be me.
The story is unsettling here, perhaps too unsettling. Only near the end did I start to feel a hint of pretentiousness – when it felt that an entertaining Twilight Zone episode was being forcibly bent to have a much deeper sociological meaning.