Sunday, September 29, 2013

I Want To Show You More by Jamie Quatro

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

BUtterfield 8 by John O'Hara

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 by Rose Tremain

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

Slammerkin by Emma Donoghue

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

The Round House by Louise Erdrich

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.