Saturday, November 23, 2013

The Sea by John Banville

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

Middle Men by Jim Gavin

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

Twilight of the Superheroes by Deborah Eisenberg

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, or Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure by John Cleland

Georgian porn

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.