Sunday, October 27, 2013

The Green House by Mario Vargas Llosa

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

Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell

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

A Questionable Shape by Bennett Sims

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

Loving Hands At Home by Diane Johnson

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.