Saturday, February 23, 2013

Lithium for Medea by Kate Braverman

An anxious young woman makes the decision to tear herself from LA

Rose, the emotionally neglected child of a monstrous egomaniacal mother, and an older hardboiled gambler, is a true child of LA. Rejecting her mother’s materialistic lifestyle, she flees to Berkeley where she enters into a marriage to a perpetual graduate student/mentally ill Trekkie. Rose gets divorced and returns to LA, only to fall into a relationship with the monstrous egomanic Jason, who needs her dependent on him, and dependent upon his injections of cocaine. This novel is the story of her breaking free from the entanglements of family, love and the city.

This truly is an LA novel, (maybe West LA novel).  The most distinctive thing about Lithium for Medea was the absolutely beautiful prose. The sentences were simple and lyrical, with highly evocative descriptions of plants and flowers. Reading this was like opening up chest after chest filled with pearls. When I was done, I kept searching the book at random to read paragraphs, and without exception, they were all astonishing.  The limpid prose, however, illuminates a sordid (even petty) story.

The unsympathetic nature of virtually every single character, including Rose, could be a problem. If this were a movie script, the producer would say, Couldn’t you give her a puppy? (Give her a pet? No, think not).  Plot points are studded through the marvelous descriptions: Dad gets cancer, letters arrive from a half mad cousin, Rose starts to gather her self respect vis à vis Jason. I kept thinking, who has that little self esteem to stay with such a colossal jerk? The stakes, however, are ultimately low. Rose must save herself, but I couldn’t fully go on the emotional journey with Rose.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Slow Man by J.M. Coetzee

The romantic yearnings of a solitary amputee disturb the peace of a nosy old lady author

Paul Rayment, an émigré to Australia, loses his leg in a bicycle accident. He requires a nurse and after some mismatches, hires the sturdy Croatian, Marijana Jokic. She is hardworking, practical and has nice calves. Without further ado, he falls in love with her, then, bit by bit, falls in love with the rest of her family, including the Apollo-like son, who needs someone to finance his military school education, the beautiful little sister who suspects something is up, the shoplifting daughter in need of rescue, and the skinny-assed jealous husband. After first designing to spirit their mother away, Paul settles for simply being the godfather. Yet something else is going on here, something that keeps interrupting the love story. Something deeply weird.

At the beginning of the book, just as Paul is about to go under the anesthesia for his amputation, he hears the clacking of typewriter keys. Huh? In the middle of Paul’s romantic agony, Elizabeth Costello, famous Australian author, shows up on his doorstep. She is here (sent here?) to nag him. Elizabeth Costello urges him to channel his erotic feelings towards another lady, not Marijana, but a blind woman, Marianna. Her blindness seems to pair up better with his missing leg. Besides Marianna is single too, not encumbered with a husband and family like Marijana. Who is this Elizabeth Costello? She seems to know a lot of about him. After a while Paul starts to think he is losing his mind. Because it can’t be-- He can’t be--

I really enjoyed this book, as I have enjoyed all the Coetzee novels I have read so far. He is good at entwining abstract themes of human freedom, the nature of reality, and morality with compelling tales of obsessions, sexual and otherwise. That way the medicine goes down easy.  Slow Man seems to be a novel about a closed up fussy man who has squandered his life collecting old photographs when suddenly he realizes he has a last chance at love. This conventional plot is interrupted by Elizabeth Costello butting in to give him all the good reasons why he should not break up this woman’s marriage and interfere in her family’s happiness. Elizabeth Costello is not only the voice of common sense - she seems personally interested in the outcome. Paul’s stubbornness annoys her. In some ways, she plays the role of God here. Isn’t she prodding him towards the morally correct outcome as well as the logistically elegant outcome?  She grows weary when he does not obey.

The novel is also a meditation on what it means to be physically disabled, how hard it is to get up the stairs, get out of a taxi, get a girlfriend. A proud man is humbled and the humiliation opens his eyes. Excellent writing.   The novel works on many levels.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Regeneration by Pat Barker

A doctor heals “shell shocked” soldiers for the purpose of returning them to the front

During World War I, at the forbidding lodge Craiglockhart, psychiatrist Dr. Rivers helps soldiers who are so traumatized by the explosions and death and tearing apart of bodies they can no longer function.  His mission is to cure their dysfunction, make them less anxious, so they can rejoin their unit. One day he is charged with restoring a prominent war hero, the poet Siegfried Sassoon, who in the throes of “madness,” allowed his pacifist statement to be read in Parliament. Other soldiers are also being treated at the hospital, including the mute Billy Prior, the officer who is stuck between two classes, comfortable in neither.  Prior enters into a wartime love affair with a yellow colored working class bomb factory girl.  Real life characters, the tragic Wilfred Owen and the plot carrying Robert Graves, also show up and discuss poetry and war.

Regeneration was not my cup of tea. I thought the prose was pedestrian, studded with long passages of stark dialogue, and the characters were flat. There were hardly any insights into human nature. The sentences were spare but a little cliché. Finally I felt beat about the head. War is bad and there is a moral dilemma in healing a man only to send him back to be killed. Got it!

I always have the same questions about historical fiction – what’s the point? (Although I loved War and Peace.)  There are two points, it seems;  1) Historical fiction should teach you about the time period, make it livelier than a dry textbook.  Regeneration really didn’t, and assumed the reader is familiar with the conflicts of this very interesting time period the customs of one century clash with the technology of another  2) Historical fiction should work as fiction. I felt on a solely literary basis, Regeneration failed. The story could have supported so much more drama.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

A girl falls down a rabbit hole to find a strange yet familiar world

Alice chases a muttering white rabbit down a deep hole. After experimenting with some comestibles that adjust her height, she figures out how to enter a beautiful garden. There she encounters talking rodents, murderous cards, and the lingering smile of a cryptic cat. The small animals and fishes behave immaturely, while Alice is constantly trying to remember and apply her manners and her mathematics. Everything is so odd that Alice starts to doubt that she is, in fact, a “little girl.” She plays a crazy game of croquet and participates in a trial concerning stolen tarts. The trial ends badly and Alice finds herself back home.

The prose begs to be read out loud, like poetry. The story works on many levels, but its essence is silliness and the silliness is so absurd it reaches around to the other side and becomes wise. The dreamlike story (for can you call it a novel?) feels very English to me, the way Alice insists upon the manners and the forms even while a Queen is calling for everyone’s beheading.

The best part is the Cheshire Cat’s smile.