Sunday, December 28, 2014

Delicate Edible Birds by Lauren Groff

Nine stories about articulate pissed off women

My favorite was the first, ”Lucky Chow Fun”, about a fat girl in an upstate town trying to fit in on the guys swim team and having to deal first with her vulnerable family and then with Chinese restaurant that alternates as a whorehouse. That story, with the use of lyrical lush sentences, created a real sense of time and place. “Blythe,” as well, had a crazy energy, a take on the Anne Sexton/Maxine Kumin friendship. The rest of the stories, for the most part, left me cold. Finally, the title story annoyed me, much the way it had annoyed me when I read it in Best American Short Stories. The main character was a pain and I didn’t care what happened to her.

The strength of this collection is the offbeat point of view, the unique eccentric details that deepened the characters and deepened their relationships. I loved the voice, the facility with language and consonance. Many of the stories take place over lifespans, a historical novel squeezed into twenty pages. The weakness, for me, is the frequent collapse into sentimentality. I prefer stories more gritty and realistic. What does this collection say about women? That they are victims? Part of the problem (and part of the delight too) was that one of my pleasures was recognizing the original text the story was derived from. I should have been concentrating on the emotions, instead I was thinking, O, it’s Abelard and Heloise. I want to be entranced, not figuring out a cross word puzzle.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Tapping the Source by Kem Nunn

Innocent boy from the desert learns about surfing and the dark side of life.

Ike Tucker, orphan boy from a hick desert town, receives word one day that his runaway sister has vanished for real this time, last seen in the company of three unsavory surfers. Despite his small stature, and utter cluelessness about life in the big city, he takes the bus to Huntington Beach, determined to track down the three men. But first he encounters Preston Marsh, one time surfer golden boy, now tattooed threatening biker. Preston has old ties to these men he would rather not revisit, but he helps Ike as well as teaches him how to surf. Ike finally gets close to one of the three men, Hound Adams, leader of a magnetic circle of surfers and is soon sucked into the various temptations of Hound's criminal lifestyle.  Eventually, Ike’s innocent girlfriend is threatened by depravity, and Preston comes to the rescue.

I loved the thoughtful poetic writing, the careful characterization of shy passive loyal Ike. And the sensually depicted details of surfing and riding the waves. This is a surf novel which is truly about surfing. Although again I asked myself the question -- Is this genre or literary? Eventually I decided that two elements kept the book in the genre category. First of all, the very thin characterization of women. Both the sister and the girlfriend are beautiful sexually damaged girls needing a man to protect them. (Although is that any different from several more sophisticated literary books with barely there female characters?) And secondly, near the end, the initially modest plot disintegrated into a welter of satanic silliness.  However, I plan to read more of Kem Nunn.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Music and Silence by Rose Tremain

A noble King attempts to lead his Nation

King Christian IV tries to jumpstart Denmark’s economy with innovative projects, while fending off recalcitrant nobles, treacherous Swedes, various religious wars, an angry wife, and a majorly upset stomach. The King also loves music, believes it medically necessary for his condition and maintains one of Europe’s finest orchestra, usually secreted in the freezing basement with the casks of wines and the chicken coop. A sophisticated system of pipes carries the music to the courtroom. Young Peter Claire, young English lutenist, joins the King’s orchestra. The King takes a special liking to the angel-faced Peter, needing him at all times to sooth his soul. Peter, however, falls in love (at first sight) with Emilia, unhappy lady-in-waiting to the furious adulterous Kirsten Munk, the king’s morganatic wife. The stories of these characters, along with several others, are told in the rest of Music and Silence.

This book was a pleasure to read, technically impressive as Tremain juggles the different characters and the differing styles of their different perceptions. This book succeeds on many levels – a historical novel in which the reader learns about the history of Denmark and its multitalented king, as a narrative tour de force using many different voices, (which the most entertaining is the embittered hilarious voice of Kirsten Munk) and an exploration of the different variations of love. The narrative voices were spectacular (although the king’s actual music seems entirely orchestral, with no vocalists.)

The only problem, and I’m not sure this is truly a “problem” is that the plot of Music and Silence is the EXACT SAME plot as Tremain's earlier novel Restoration. Restoration with sleighs – the intelligent wounded king, the innocent sidekick feeling deep love and loyalty to the sovereign, the beautiful innocent girl under the King’s protection.  This novel was much longer, however.  And this one had an emphatically happy ending.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Bloodchild by Octavia Butler

Aliens, stronger than we, are coming

Assorted stories and essays by Octavia Butler (her last book perhaps?) The strength of these stories is the unadorned and quietly ferocious voice. The reader is lulled into accepting perfectly normal American circumstances, followed in a page or two by the disorienting twist. What the reader assumed was normal will turn out not to be normal at all. Many of the stories have alien creatures, ugly all powerful creatures from other planets newly arrived on earth, needing something vital. These creatures are not deliberately cruel, they can be reasoned with, however, they demand complete submission from the initially confused humans. Bodily integrity is violated and the human victim does not overtly dislike it – they have learned to take pleasure in it.

The imagery is invasive and memorable. I especially liked the story, “The Evening and the Morning and the Night” about people trying to chew their way out of their own body. All the stories have a philosophical spine fused to a crazy imaginative skin.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

The Dawn Patrol by Don Winslow

An ex cop, a surfer, is haunted by an abducted child he couldn't save.

Each morning, Boone Daniels, carefree beach bum and flat broke private detective, surfs off the San Diego coast with five eccentric buddies. One morning is different -- a colossal set of waves will arrive soon, and the old friends are filled with anticipation. Ambitious attorney Petra Hall, however, waits at Boone’s office, needing him to take on an insurance fraud case. All he has to do is ensure that beautiful stripper Tammy makes it alive and in one piece to serve as a witness in court. Someone, however, is trying to kill Tammy.

Ok, I finally found a half decent genre novel. Besides this one. “The Dawn Patrol” was well plotted, at times gripping though the trope was the damsel in distress. The prose was serviceable, and the action was semi-believable, even though there weren't any real characters per se.  Part of the difference between a literary novel and a genre novel is that a literary novel is assumed to have well rounded interesting characters and a genre novel isn’t. A genre novel is all about the plot, therefore, instead of characters, you get three or four traits wrapped around a motivation. There were lots of “characters” here, the main ones (packed into beautiful highly sexualized bodies) and the sidekicks, distinguished by freaky cartoony tags, like tattoos or nicknames or weird hairstyles.

At times the dialogue and some description got cutesy which seemed odd in an environment where murders are happening right and left. The casualness of death is another genre novel element I have trouble accepting.  Also I find it hard to believe that hundreds of 8 year old girls would be sexually trafficked through San Diego without anyone saying a word. One or two girls perhaps but not boatloads. Or maybe I am naïve.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Kinder Than Solitude by Yiyun Li

Teenage impulsivity ruins four lives

Ruyu, a laconic orphan, raised and philosophically molded by a pair of quasi-Catholic elderly women, arrives in Beijing to attend high school and board at the home of family friends. She shares a bed with Shaoai, whose first year at college has been marred by the Tiananmen Square demonstrations. Shaoai has participated in the demonstrations, and the crushing of the dissent has meant the crushing of Shaoai’s future. This has made her cynical and she likes tormenting the silent unworldly Ruyu.  Ruyu is befriended by two classmates who also live in the compound, handsome Boyang, and caring Moran.   After Shaoai drinks a glass of poisoned Tang, however, leaving her severely brain damaged, eventually the three others fail in adulthood both at material achievement and emotional intimacy.

This book disappointed me, especially after I loved The Vagrants so much. Halfway through this one I didn’t care about any of these drips. The American sections where the two girls, now middle aged women, trudge around winter landscapes in sackcloth and ashes, go on far too long.  Could it be that my feelings are a function of well yes I enjoy your stories of spiritual desperation in totalitarian China but perhaps I cannot appreciate your stories of spiritual desperation in the affluent US. There are twelve different kinds of latte at Starbucks.  What then is the problem?  Here the truly compelling story is what exactly happened back in the bedroom in Beijing.  Also, the writing is far more vivid describing the compound with the lively neighbors, and the parts where the three kids bike around Beijing.

For me, the big "mystery" reveal was ho him and it is established way too late that Boyang’s mother has access to poison, although it’s clear enough that this novel is not structured as a traditional whodunit. The paragraphs get preachy at times, and there seemed to be too much showing instead of telling. However, I thought it was pretty cool that Ruyu played the accordion. More of that please.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones

Two families though only one can be the real family

Ever since she was little, Dana has known her father James was a secret bigamist, therefore Dana must be circumspect when planning her outings and her education and career goals lest she encounter her father’s other daughter. The legitimate one.  Dana only sees her father and Uncle Raleigh on Wednesday nights when they come for supper. Dana and her mother Gwen (the outside family) sometimes spy on the other daughter and wife, Chaurisse and her mother LaVerne (the inside family), and Dana understands that she must never approach, although Gwen is meticulously stubborn about making sure that James provides the same advantages to Dana that he provides to Chaurisse. However, insecure, beautiful and smart Dana cannot help herself and hides her identity, initiating a friendship with good natured, chunky and academic dud Chaurisse. Eventually, however, the secret comes out.

At first I thought 350 pages, uh oh, but story dragged me in. I don’t want to say that the pace was slow, but I will say that the pace was stately. Carried along by this stateliness, the reader gets an entertaining glimpse into the Atlanta African-American bourgeoisie. The first section is narrated by Dana, whose insecurity leaks through her story, and the second by Chaurisse, who is well loved and draws the reader in with her charm. The deft characterization also helped hold my interest. Numerous people, from the farm to the city, from the church to the beauty shop, populate these two alternating worlds, two worlds linked by James Witherspoon, the roly-poly bigamist, and James’s foster brother, the light skinned Raleigh.  

There are some great set pieces here, (the shotgun wedding of teenage James and Laverne, the grandmother’s death, the confrontation in the beauty shop), that’s why it was disappointing that the ending, which truly is devastating, is not dramatized but related years after the fact, robbing it of its emotional power. Also, I was reading away, perfectly content at the two stories going down two separate train tracks, then noticed there were only a few pages left. I wondered how the author was going to wrap things up. By force, it turns out.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Two smart people try to correct mistakes made at the outset of their relationship

Elizabeth Bennet and her four sisters will have no inheritance.  They must land rich husbands, else -- well, the consequences are never quite spelled out, although the dreadful Lady Catherine de Bourgh has a sideline in placing desperate young women as subservient governesses. In Elizabeth’s entertaining search for a plausible mate, she keeps encountering the obnoxiously haughty (if not worse) Mr. Darcy, who is visibly annoyed by the loud vulgar Bennets. On the other hand, wealthy Mr. Darcy seems to find Elizabeth amusing, although once she surmises he was the one who ruined her beloved sister’s engagement to the kind Mr. Bingley, her heart fills with hatred. Unfortunately, about thirty minutes after this realization, Mr. Darcy arrives to condescendingly and insultingly ask for her hand in marriage. Just as insultingly she declines, though later, when Elizabeth is presented with epistolary evidence that perhaps Mr. Darcy is not so evil as presented, she starts to rethink the situation. When the Bennets have a family crisis, and Mr. Darcy comes to the rescue, secretly protecting the marriage prospects of all the Bennet girls, Elizabeth feels esteem, gratitude and love. A double wedding ensues.

As always, I deeply admired the perfect plotting, the pellucid prose, the concise and lively characterization of every single person, the dialogue which does double, triple duty, even though this time the novel felt the tiniest bit cold and mechanical. Austen is skilled at establishing Elizabeth’s emotional state so that what happens next doesn’t require excess explanation. Darcy’s first insult to her, right off the bat, resonates for the entire book, sets her against him from the get go. His first marriage proposal, in the exact middle of the book, is perfectly detonated. The key to plotting is the minor characters, and this book relies on them, especially the very busy Mr. Collins, who in addition to being the linchpin to several subplots, is also one of English literature's classic comic creations. Austen’s strength is the witty delineation of every minor character with just a few brush strokes. 

Darcy and Elizabeth are the smartest people in the room, bored perhaps. They’ve never encountered anyone like themselves and perhaps have not imagined that such a person could exist.  Most of the characters are universal -- I could see almost any one of them in the modern age, Wickham especially. Mr. and Mrs. Bennet certainly. Lydia, of course, and even Mr. Collins. But not Mr. Darcy. The gentleman of leisure does not exist and could not exist in our society. Much of the story is taken up with long walks, and coach rides and month long visits. This novel would make no sense after the invention of the motorcar. Elizabeth would just pop over for lunch and wouldn’t be forced to play the piano and make endless after dinner conversation. Therefore, no book.

I don’t want to say that it seems the end dragged on, but it seemed the book had a very long coda, after the sturm und drang of the middle. One motivation, which I hadn’t seen before, is Elizabeth’s desperation to get the hell out of Longbourn and the influence of her mother.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

The Childhood of Jesus by J.M. Coetzee

Two refugees make their way in a strange land

David, a five year old boy, and Simon, an older man, disembark into a new country, memories washed clean. Simon has taken charge of David after he was separated from his mother. Simon’s mission is to find her, though neither Simon or the boy know her name or what she looks like. After a rough start, the two make their way in their new country, a strangely passionless place, with plenty of bread but little meat. Free soccer tickets but plodding conversations devoid of irony. Competence is not a priority in this land and frail Simon gets an unlikely job as a stevedore, though it doesn’t really matter how little grain he unloads – the grain sits and rots in the warehouse anyway. One day Simon encounters Ines, a spoiled young woman playing tennis with her spoiled brothers- he decides she is David’s real mother though perhaps not a biological one and after a day’s hesitation, she accepts her new role, taking the child and excessively babying him. When David runs into trouble learning at school, the government decrees he must be sent to a special institute/jail. To prevent this, the makeshift family goes on the lam.

This is a weird book, mysterious yet ultimately beautiful - a deadpan allegorical novel about people who have traded (involuntarily?) their messy human desires and passions for a calm benevolent boredom. Everyone is a refugee and no one can remember who they used to be.  People seem unconcerned about this although almost every character except Simon and David and Ines and Ines’s boyfriend, a quasi criminal, have a drippy personality. Eventually these incurious dogooders irritate Simon with their passivity. He wants to fuck a willing woman and eat a piece of bloody steak and nobody understands why. Or pretends not to understand. For a while the scenes get repetitive with a sort of badabump comic rhythm as Simon interrogates these noodleheads about their missing desires with the same maddening results. We get it. Everyone is a boring passionless drip but in this world there are no murders. Perhaps no evil.

The story is somewhat dull until David, the bright yet educationally delayed boy suddenly learns to read overnight. He causes problems at school by not conforming and as the authorities come to ship him off to reform school, the “parents” rebel. A concept unheard of in this land. It is here that the story gets interesting.

 In the novel, workaday problems somehow glow with meaning – the stopped up toilet, the child with the learning disability, the firecracker accident. I have no idea what the title was about although it tilted my mind to see every symbol as being associated with the New Testament. What is a parallel are the two adults who are charged with parenting a very unusual child, a magical child. And Der Erlkonig -- what’s that all about? And the deliberate mistakes about Der Erlkonig?

 Was this the Island of Death? It was a little frustrating reading this novel – you felt the clues abounding and the little threads you were supposed to pull – but will there be more clarity once the threads are pulled? Ultimately thought provoking.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

American Skin by Don DeGrazia

A Chicago kid trying to survive joins a band of skinheads

One day, Alex Verdi, a blond Italian American, walks down the halls of his high school and is surprised to see a cop going through his locker. Knowing his dad is a small town pot dealer, Alex hightails it for home, hiding in the woods and witnessing the police ransacking his house. Later he learns mother and father have been arrested, and little sister put in foster care. Instead of coming forward, Alex hitchhikes a ride to Chicago and gets an anonymous awful job in a plating factory. He is involved in a fist fight on the subway, and a rainbow coalition of skinheads, led by the impressive Timothy Penn, saves him. Alex moves into the skinheads' communal housing/dance club, becomes a bouncer, starts a romance with the beautiful biracial ass kicking Marie. Further adventures follow until Alex's world is righted.

American Skin starts off wonderfully and I was really sucked in by the narrative tension and the writing. Getting Alex from the country to gritty Chicago and the lively building where all the "good" skinheads live and party was great. But then the story starts to stall and plot contrivances, melodramatic love scenes, and creaky "crazy skinhead" set pieces, do nothing to take the book out of its stall. That might be a common problem for debut novelists. Characters are introduced and dropped, the action is moved forward but nothing really feels motivated. Things stop making sense. Suddenly Alex and Timmy are in prison, part of a white supremacist gang. Huh? The prose, however, was consistently interesting.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Off Course by Michelle Huneven

A promising young woman gets distracted by her affair with an older married man

In the early eighties, Cressida Hartley retreats to her parents’ Sierra A-frame to finish her dissertation, though it's not very long before the isolated charming but hickish town starts to suck her in. She has a quick affair with life-loving bar owner, Jakey, but is taken aback when he turns out to be promiscuous. Later she meets the quiet hyper-masculine carpenter Quinn Morrow, at first becoming his walking companion, then the recipient of his gifts of house made bacon. Next there is a kiss and after that there is a full blown affair that shakes his marriage to the core, scandalizing the town. Quinn and Cressida keep trying to break up, but Quinn bounces between his much loved loyal wife and much loved exciting mistress. Only Cressida, not Quinn, feels the extreme disapproval from the other townsfolk. Instead of hightailing it out of the mountains and salvaging her professorial career, she moons around the redwoods as a waitress, wasting years of her life. It’s clear by the end of the book, while Cressida is nominally happy, she has never recovered from the drama of loving Quinn.

Like Huneven’s earlier novel Blame, the themes of time and what is the meaning of life slowly sneak up on you. I kept thinking, well, the activities of these people are interesting but the stakes are low, than I realized, no, the stakes are actually quite high. Cressida is wasting her life. Slow and steadily in a series of tiny decisions but the consequences are huge.

Huneven is really talented at world creation.  She brings to life this mountain town with its social hierarchies, quaint entertainments (singing and dancing but also adultery and alcoholism). The lives of the town people are correspondingly stunted, though they all seem very comfortable in their beautiful bubble.  The mountain people despise LA, of course. Their parties are hilarious, as is the depiction of Cressida’s eccentric family. Although after a while the people in the town started to run together – Dee Dee, Donna – were they the same lady? Candy?

The twist ending is very believable, just because it happens all the time.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

The Great Gatsby by F.Scott Fitzgerald

Yearning for the American Dream, a man remakes himself

During the Roaring Twenties, Nick Carraway, affluent child of the Midwest, attempting to become a bond broker in New York, rents a modest beach house next to shady millionaire Jay Gatsby’s mansion whose nightly summer parties draw thousands of the glitterati. Gatsby takes an keen interest in Nick, an interest Nick soon realizes is because of his beautiful cousin Daisy, trophy wife to the rich knuckle dragger but Establishment stalwart Tom Buchanan. Meanwhile, Nick falls a little in love with Daisy’s golf pro friend Jordan Baker. When upstart Gatsby tries to claim long lost love Daisy as his own, the situation cannot remain stable.

Everything and I mean everything is set up in the first chapter. The story is economically and beautifully written, with tiny sharp memorable physical descriptions of people. Character creation in a few swipes. Every location, every person, every prop does triple duty in service of the plot, character development and underlying imagery. The book is constructed of a series of spectacular set pieces perfectly written.  The party at the apartment, Gatsby's decadent party, Nick's awkward tea party, the hot room at the Plaza. Driving metaphors abound. For the first time I realized that the car accident is ambiguous-- Daisy has to choose between hitting the other car (killing herself?) or hitting the woman who ran into the street.

There’s sort of a Madame Bovary condemnation of society going on and, as in Madame Bovary, society doesn’t come off well. Tom is a rich racist jackass much like the rich racist jackasses of today. Daisy is thinking about Daisy. In her scenes, Jordan Baker is entertaining as well as a key plot device. She introduces Nick and Gatsby, she's the initial connection between Daisy and Gatsby and she causes Myrtle to believe she's Tom’s wife. Plotting has a lot to do with characters with connections to other characters.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward

 A family comes under intense pressures in the days before Hurricane Katrina

Fourteen year old Esch lives in the backwoods of coastal Mississippi with her family, which consists of a drunken widowed father, and three brothers: basketball playing Randall, pit bull loving Skeetah and seven year old Junior. The story begins with dad haphazardly urging the kids to prepare for the hurricane by having them fill jars with water and stock up on extra boxes of Ramen noodles. All the children except for Junior have their own high-stakes problems. First of all, classically educated Esch is coming to the understanding that she is pregnant. She’s had many sexual partners among her brothers’ friends although she is certain the father is Manny, a boy she loves who cares nothing for her. Meanwhile, Skeetah’s beloved dog, China, just birthed a litter of puppies. Skeetah desperately tries to keep the small blind puppies alive, and ward off the fatal infection parvo. But one by one, the dogs sicken and Skeetah gets desperate for pricey medicine. Randall dreams of entry to an exclusive basketball camp, dependent upon his good behavior and more to the point, the good behavior of his family. Their dreams are jeopardized by their own choices, and finally by the impending chaos of Katrina. The storm comes, the floods roll in and the desperate family escapes to the roof of their house.

Wow, what great writing. This book really succeeds at world creation. I was completely sucked into the narrative, the stakes for each character rising each humid day before the storm.  Ward plunges the reader into Esch’s intense bloodily violent world and never lets up. The Michael Vick situation became a lot clearer – pit bull fights deep in the woods gives the boys' circumscribed lives meaning. The plotting is clever – each family member’s desires and motivations are depicted in painful snatches, just enough to carry the action along.

Although I have no idea what the title means – the bones coming out of the flooded graveyard? And, every so often, Esch likens her love situation to Medea’s, which jarred a little as the insertions didn’t feel seamless. There were also an awful lot of boys, between Esch’s brothers and her sex partners -- I started to get them mixed up. There’s a great flood scene at the end, which reminded me of other great flood scenes from Their Eyes Were Watching God and Jayne Anne Phillips's Lark and Termite. There’s nothing like a good flood scene to get everything out on the table.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

What Happened to Sophie Wilder? by Christopher Beha

A young woman attempts to live according to the rules of her newly adopted Catholic faith

Sophie Wilder, an orphaned creative writing student, marries another orphaned student whose pleasant aunt introduces Sophie to the Catholic faith. Later, during Mass, Sophie feels a numinous joy she is intent on recapturing. She joins the Church, publishes a well received book of short stories, then disappears. After several years, Charlie Blakeman, a young novelist, one of her many past lovers, encounters her in Manhattan during a crisis in her life. Sophie tells him the story of what she has been doing. And it hasn’t been writing.

I really wanted to like this book. It’s a novel of ideas. The idea is what if you could achieve lasting joy or peace by submitting your human will to an outdated, likely fantastical, more than slightly ridiculous, half the time inconvenient moral code, would you? However, that particular idea is inconsistently presented.  It's on the novel side of the things that the execution stumbles – the fictional dream, the prose, the characterization, the dialogue. Worst of all the story begins in a writing workshop. The prose is sonorous and phony, the characterization barely makes an imprint, and the dialogue is creaky. Sophie Wilder is not a real person but a blowup doll. The only interesting character was the dying blackguard father-in-law but then the reader is supposed to believe this crusty old bastard carts around 24 boxes of newspaper clippings everywhere he goes. Novels should spring like Athena from the head of Zeus, helmeted and ready for battle. Not armed with meandering tension and unmotivated actions. However, what I did like about this book is that there are two endings.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Bleeding Hearts by Ian Rankin

An assassin tries to figure out who set him up

Michael Weston is a meticulous paid assassin, who happens to be a hemophiliac. After he kills a prominent newscaster, he falls immediately under suspicion and is chased by his nemesis, the fat American detective Hoffer. Hoffer pursues him through England where Michael joins up with Bel, the lovely young sharpshooter daughter of his arms supplier. After a side trip through Scotland, Michael and Bel flee to America where they encounter the murderous machinations of a ruthless cult leader.

The only reason I read this genre novel was to learn about plotting because someone told me Ian Rankin was good at plotting. The prose was not unpleasant although the story relied heavily upon archetypes instead of actual character development. But plotting – hmm – there was a LOT of deus ex machina situations. We meet a new character in Texas on page 250 who fifty pages later roars out of a Seattle woods to save Michael’s ass from an impossible situation.

Reading this was sort of like doing a crossword puzzle but I don't do crossword puzzles. The book was a platform for somewhat entertaining ruminations about driving across America. The Michael and Bel romance made no sense to me because he’s a murderer and Bel’s mildly upset about that as if he were a slightly shady roofer.  The story almost degenerates into a romantic comedy, but who would cheerfully marry a paid assassin? The writing and the dialogue wasn’t so bad. The fundamental problem is that I didn’t care about a single one of the characters. Not the killer. Not the fat American not the cipher of a girl.  Also there were too many pages.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Desperate Characters by Paula Fox

A couple navigates their way through falling-to-pieces New York

 After cooking a delicious meal for her attorney husband, Sophie Bentwood, an educated housewife, is badly bitten by a stray cat she has been surreptitiously feeding. Over the course of the book, she ignores the worsening bite, as she and husband Otto attend sophisticated parties, complain about their sophisticated friends and visit their summer house, which inexplicably has been trashed. In between, Sophie sneaks a midnight drink with Otto’s estranged business partner, reminisces about her peculiarly detached lover who broke up with her and returned to his wife, and wonders if she has rabies. At the end of the book, Otto and Sophie stand in an embrace, ink splattered on the walls of their townhouse.

This novel reminded me of Diane Johnson's novels. A certain kind of seventies chic. Women raised to be household ornaments getting freed from their cultural chains. Now what? Sex probably. Then what? The best part of this book was the nearly surreal dialogue. There's an absurdity, almost Wodehousian, to the dialogue. My expectations, however, were probably too high. The story felt a little musty to me, airless. The musty smell of privilege, of a bygone world. The novel also reminded me of BUtterfield 8.  Parasites who don't need to work futzing around with their unearned money.  There's a little something of The Great Gatsby going on as well.

The sentences are wonderfully poetical, really designed to be read aloud and the scenes are short, vivid and surreal. The funny shock if the word “cunt” near the end of the book. And the shock of the turd in the summer home.  A mirror is held up to the face of society and the face doesn't turn out to be all that sweet.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

The Lover by Marguerite Duras

A woman looks back on her youth in Indochina

Our nameless narrator, a fifteen year old French girl living in Saigon, is noticed by an affluent young Chinese man who quickly becomes obsessed with her. She allows him to squire her about, support her family, wash her body with cool water from a jar and cover her with kisses. Her mother (and even the narrator herself) are ashamed of the mixing of the races, but the mother needs the money and the beaten down girl needs the excitement. Her home life is crazy, with a dead father who left the family penniless, and an overdramatizing mother who favors the sociopath older son, ignoring the two younger children. Ostracized at school, the girl eventually returns to France for education and the affair ends. 

This was a short novel, a reflection on a lost world, written in little biting chunks the size of a paragraph or two. The book opens with one of these little biting chunks. Our narrator is considered more beautiful now that she is old because her face is “ravaged.” Most of the story is told in the first person, though sometimes Duras slips into the third, to emphasize the depiction of the past and the narrator’s memory of the girl she had been. Mostly the past is rendered in present tense and the present rendered in past tense and sometimes the narrative slips into the future tense.  What Duras does is bring vividly to life a swept away colonial world, and in many ways, this novel reminded me of Faulkner, an attempt to recreate the deeply screwed up past.

I am intending to read novels about love and all the love novels are turning out to be about something other than love. I don’t think the narrator loves this weird little man and I think the weird little man simply has a freaky sexual obsession with her. This book, I think, is actually about the all-controlling Mother.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Suspicious River by Laura Kasischke

A hotel desk clerk becomes a prostitute

Leila, a young desk clerk at the Swan Motel in the dreary north Midwest, offers blow jobs to curious patrons for $60 a trick, saving the money for “something.” Soon word gets round and a line of creepy men starts checking in. One of them, Gary, is loving and protective and more than a little bit scary. As Gary takes her money, steals her car, and pimps her out in dreary bars, Leila relives witnessing her mother’s murder and her own adolescent compulsive (yet orgasmic) promiscuity. At the climax of the book, Leila must decide if she wants to live or die.

This book was a odd combination which almost succeeded. A gritty story about a shell shocked girl selling blowjobs to middle aged men related with extremely lyrical language, language at times maybe so poetic it jolted the reader from the story. Literary techniques, such first-person, second-person, and third-person points-of-view, are employed. The scenes are absolutely humorless but sharp and lucid and beautifully sad. The writing reminded me of Kate Braverman, but Kate Braverman’s heroine had loads more energy. I just wanted to slap some sense into this passive girl, sleepwalking to her death. What motivates her? Not the money – it’s the longing for death apparently. The final scene, however, and her final decision, do not really feel motivated.

The story hinges on prostitution being demeaning and humiliating. Is prostitution inherently demeaning or does our culture assign an unwarranted stigma to it? Is it the phoniness, the lying that causes the stigma or the promiscuity of the woman? The story gets more gripping as it goes on which I didn't expect as the interactions between Leila and the men are such relentless downers. The sharp cuts between the past and the present make Leila’s self destructiveness clearer, like a roller coaster ride into the abyss. Two types of men are depicted in this book --emasculated cuckolds, and truly sadistic bastards. Are men really this terrible? And why does Leila’s husband starve himself?

Sunday, August 24, 2014

The Infatuations by Javier Marias

A young woman finds out more about a murder

Maria, who likes taking coffee at a café close to her office in Madrid, frequently observes there a happily married pair. She nicknames them,“The Perfect Couple.” One day, she skims a front page newspaper story showing a bloody photo of man hacked to death. Some weeks later, she realizes that the man was the husband, murdered by a homeless psychotic. She googles details of the murder, piecing together the life of the couple. Returning to the café, she encounters the stunned wife, Luisa, who invites her to her apartment. Luisa and her husband had nicknamed Maria, “The Prudent Young Woman.” At Luisa’s apartment, she meets Javier Diaz-Valera, a suave handsome man, also with a literary bent, who was the victim’s best friend. Maria and Diaz-Valera begin a sexual relationship, Maria working hard to conceal her true feelings from her lover. She understands that he is in love with Luisa, waiting for the end of her mourning. One day, Maria accidentally overhears a conversation giving her new information about Diaz-Valera’s connections with the murderer. Diaz-Valera confronts her and explains himself.

I’m not sure if this novel was my cup of tea, although I read it on a cross country flight which is probably why I finished it. The book is a weird amalgam of bloody knives, love triangles and lots of gassy philosophical yada yada yada. The endless analysis of minutiae. Was that supposed to be funny? I certainly appreciated the ruminations in Sebald, but the never-ending analysis here seemed trivial. Nothing happens after the husband gets stabbed to death, only more conversations. Also, there may be an unlikeability question for me. Diaz-Valera seems too cold and Maria is a passive drip, in some cases a gigantic dope, although it seems to me Marias did a pretty good job of getting inside a woman’s head. She works at a publishing house so we get some amusing satire on pompous writers. Also interesting were Diaz-Valera’s references to other literary works by Dumas, Shakespeare and Balzac. It made me want to read those books, not more Marias, unfortunately.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Emotionally Weird by Kate Atkinson

Effie and her mother tell stories.

In 1972, Effie and her eccentric red-headed “mother”, holed up on a remote Scottish island, tell each other competing stories. Effie’s is of her comical travails among her fellow students in the University of Dundee’s creative writing program. Her mother’s is the fantastical story of Effie’s parentage. Inserted between their narratives are pages of Effie’s try at a murder mystery, another student’s endless fantasy trilogy, and their professor’s extremely pretentious novel. All is revealed at the end, though by that time the reader may not care that much about rather acerbic Effie. The point of this book is the voice.

This was amazing and very funny writing, supported by the comic tension between the lively narrative consciousnesses of Effie and her mother and the plodding rhythms of Effie’s terrible detective novel. Characters are skewered, especially on the college campus, although there were too many characters to keep straight. In many ways this book was a puzzle – why so many Dr. Who references? And the reader would get more out of the book if she were familiar with Scotland. The story is full of academic joking. Is Kate Atkinson considered to be a serious writer? If not, is it because she is a woman?

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Dept. Of Speculation by Jenny Offill

An affair threatens a marriage and much more

Somewhere in Brooklyn, an acerbic writer whose motivation sputters because of money pressures, a new baby and a bedbug infestation, realizes her loyal Midwestern husband might have fallen in love with another woman. The realization shocks her, threatening her comfortably bohemian lifestyle, the happiness of her child, and even her sanity. The author takes a hackneyed low stakes theme – adultery among the hipster classes, and uses highly lyrical paragraphs, pithy chunks of philosophy, a humorous perspective and a structure encompassing courtship, baby, affair, and reconciliation to build a surprisingly gripping novel.

This is an exquisite jewel of a book in which questions about ambition, love, family life and existence are explored. There is much wisdom, as well as a lot of very effective plotting and character development in 177 pages (tiny pages too with lots of white space). The novel is very funny and feels packed with interior jokes and themes that bounce off each other. The most impressive thing about this book is the lyrical prose, which begs rereading. The typical plot scaffolding is missing – the actual facts of the adultery are implied. Although I didn’t really emotionally understand the wife’s jealousy, I understood both parents' desire to keep their child free of pain. The husband, however, seemed like sort of a drip and I'm not sure I bought the happy "ending." 

Monday, August 4, 2014

A Person of Interest by Susan Choi


An Asian immigrant is demonized after a terrorist bombing,

Dr. Lee, an elderly eccentric immigrant math professor at a mediocre school, witnesses a mail bombing that takes the life of a young hotshot teacher. Meanwhile, Dr. Lee receives a cryptic letter referring to the bombing as well as to the painful circumstances surrounding his first marriage. The only person who would know those things are his wife’s first husband who went on the run after their divorce. Guilty memories make Dr. Lee lie about the letter to the FBI. Lee is also tormented by thoughts of his disappeared daughter; his first wife, divorced then dead; and his second wife, who was apparently only interested in a green card and cash. When Dr. Lee becomes a “person of interest” in the FBI investigation, his public life is turned upside down as well.

I admire the ambition to write in a beautiful manner about a topical subject, like Mona Simpson’s My Hollywood. The plot of A Person of Interest relies upon a combination of the Dr. Wen Ho Lee Chinese hysteria espionage case as well the Unabomber story, and considers, among other things, how quickly and gleefully America and the media demonize the Other. In this book, the topical plot is wound together with an affecting family drama. The mystery of who mailed the bomb, apparently a backwoods egomaniacal genius, is entwined with the mystery of why Dr. Lee bombed his family life. Why is he so unhappy? Why does he drink so much? Of course this family plot is the true story, the one where the emotions are buried. Dr. Lee doesn’t understand America and doesn’t really want to understand America. He doesn’t care to understand either of his wives.

In general, the prose is consistently at a high level of excellence. There is an extended sequence about an old lawn mower and fatherhood that is just wonderful. However, the story dragged in spots and could have borne some cutting. Once you have a heavily plotted book, the plots need to be wrapped up, and as we got close to the end there was a big plot twist, after which the story started moving at warp speed.  However, because the plot points were anchored so skillfully earlier in the novel, the believability of the story didn’t disintegrate. 

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Le Grand Meaulnes by Alain-Fournier

A boy can’t find his way back to a mysterious country estate and its beautiful mistress

Augustin Meaulnes, a tall handsome boy, a bit spoiled, joins the small country boarding school run by Francois’s parents. François is immediately fascinated by Augustin’s obvious superiority. One day, as a practical joke, Meaulnes borrows a peasant’s horse and cart. Getting lost in the winter landscape, he falls asleep. When he wakes, Meaulnes finds himself near a beautiful villa. Children laugh in the shadows and he realizes the chateau is preparing for a large party. He explores the many rooms and outbuildings of the crumbling estate.  In one room, a pretty girl plays the piano for the children's entertainment. Later, boats take the partygoers to an island so the children can play. Meaulnes engages the girl in conversation. After some meaningful looks, they part. The party gets ruined, Meaulnes gets a lift home, but once again falls asleep. Returning to the school and real life, he spends a lot of energy trying to figure out the location of the villa and the girl. Meaulnes is near despair, but methodical loyal Francois is the one who eventually tracks down the beautiful girl. For his own reasons, however, Meaulnes is torn and cannot commit to happiness.

The mysterious party scene is wonderfully done.  It reads like a fairy tale and it wasn't until Francois actually tracks down the real live girl that I realized the party wasn’t a dream, but an actual party. Also, I loved the opening section and its descriptions of French rural life at the turn of the last century. I really got a sensual sense of a vanished world. However, my enjoyment of the book was permanently marred when Le Grand Meaulnes turns out to be despicable. There is NO excuse for what he does near the end of the book. None.

I’m not sure if I understand what the big deal with this book is. It seems kind of slight. Is it because World War I wiped this fairy tale world and its hierarchies away? So far I’ve read three French novels, Mme. Bovary, Nana and this one and they all end with a beautiful young female body in extremis. What’s going on? 

Sunday, July 20, 2014

A Life In Men by Gina Frangello

A girl makes the most of her life

Two college girls, Mary and Nix, travel round the Greek islands. Nix is protective of Mary, who recently discovered she has cystic fibrosis and will likely live only a year or two more. Nix is determined that on this adventure Mary will experience life and lose her virginity to a handsome suave European. In scattered scenes over the course of the book, the reader learns more and more about what actually happened on that island. The remainder of the book concerns Mary’s travels in various picturesque locales and with different men as she tries to come to grips with her illness.

This story could also be called, A Life in Vacations. And although Mary does seem to order her life by the men she’s been with, it’s clear that the title is ironic. The characters felt fully three dimensional and the exotic settings, while hammy, worked well. The pace, however, was plodding and it wasn’t until about three quarters of the way through that I really started to care about what would happen to Mary. I kept weighing whether to put the book down for good, but like Beautiful Ruins, this novel revealed itself to be more complex than it seemed at first blush. The injection of the fatal illness imparted some much needed stakes to the essentially dull plot (check out this cool beach), and there was a skillful use of flash forwards to startle the reader, otherwise this story would be just another white girl’s reminiscences about junior year abroad. Once I got into the story, I admired (the way I did with Middlemarch) the semi-painful trudge through the pages which turned into something deeply moving, about how in any life certain things must be renounced. Maybe I just find it harder to be enthralled when I know the main character has a fatal illness. It makes me wonder how much stock I put in a happy ending. (Apparently a lot.)

Saturday, July 12, 2014

The Affairs of Others by Amy Grace Loyd

A landlady gets more involved with her tenants than she prefers

Celia, an emotionally crushed young widow, owns a four unit Brooklyn brownstone. Hope, a hot 40 something emotionally crushed divorcee, sublets one of the apartments but Hope’s noisy and brutalizing trysts are too much for Celia to overhear.  Celia has always been careful to maintain a safe distance between herself and her tenants. Or has she? The reader learns that she is actually ministering to Mr. Coughlan, the elderly sea captain on the top floor as well as carefully observing the tension between the married couple, the Braunsteins.  Once Celia gets more involved, first with Hope, then the others, she disturbs submerged feelings she can no longer control.

At first this book transported me, then the character motivations and at times the prose (check out the last sentence) got too difficult to easily follow. So grieving women develop a dangerous taste for rough sex? Well, maybe. Also, Celia had zero sense of humor which tended to make her first person narration claustrophobic. Nonetheless, these questions didn’t derail the book for me, and the rhythms of the prose were often beautiful. The Celia/Hope story comes to a fulfilling conclusion, although the other tenants’ stories are given short shrift. Unfortunately, this novel was ultimately disappointing.


Sunday, July 6, 2014

The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith

A hanger-on develops murderous habits

The book opens with Tom Ripley, sensitive down-on-his-luck orphan, skittish of the law, being chased down a Manhattan street by wealthy Mr. Greenleaf, who can’t understand why his son Dickie won’t leave the beautiful Italian coast and return to New York to work in Dad’s boating business. Mr. Greenleaf has a proposition for Tom – he’ll pay Tom’s way to Europe if Tom tries to persuade Dickie to come home. Tom can’t believe his luck. He arrives in Italy, encountering the initially annoyed Dickie, along with Dickie’s bosom friend Marge. Dickie seems to have the perfect lifestyle of beachy luxury and creativity. Quickly Tom charms his way into Dickie's digs but when Dickie’s friendliness cools, Tom isn’t quite ready to say goodbye.

The unique thing about this book was the way Highsmith made you feel sympathetic towards Tom Ripley, who is a cold utterly unsympathetic character. Everyone who meets him (except for the somewhat dense Mr. Greenleaf) chalks him up as a loser, an outsider, a potential “sissy.” His insecurity makes you feel sorry for him. You start to root for him. The character study entwines itself with the murder mystery. I admired the way the homosexual undercurrent is a key part of the plotting and of the character development of both Dickie and Tom, yet homosexuality is never addressed or referred to head on. I guess that was part of the cultural constraints of the time.

And really what is the difference between Tom Ripley and Dickie Greenleaf – they’re both parasites. Only Dickie is comfortable being Dickie and Tom is definitely not comfortable being Tom. Tom wants things. His improvised fabrications are helped along by the dopey cops. The story got more boring for me when it turned into a cat and mouse game.  Skillful but cold.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter

What is happiness? What is life?

Dee Moray, beautiful bit player on the world’s most extravagant movie, Cleopatra, is sequestered in a tiny pensione on the Mediterrean Coast, the Hotel Adequate View, believing she is dying of cancer. Pasquale, the inn's owner, a young man with grandiose expansionary plans, falls in love. The two are separated, but fifty years later, Pasquale visits the United States to discover Dee's fate. In the meantime, the reader learns the stories of numerous other characters related to Dee and Pasquale.

The heart of this novel is not so much this simple plot, but rather all the various clever (and delightful) ways the story is told, through differing POVs and differing narrative styles.  We read excerpts from the memoir of a slimy Hollywood producer, a treatment of a ridiculous film (Donner!), and the sad sack tale of a American screwup at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. It only occurs to me now that perhaps this is a collection of linked short stories.  Though it couldn't be - the central mystery of what  happened to Dee Moray is ingeniously parceled out and threaded through the other narratives.

At first I found the novel a little too irritatingly cutesy, but the more I read, the more I admired the twisting together of the plotlines.  In many ways the novel is about Hollywood and fame, and what exactly does it mean to settle for real life if you can’t get fame. The most famous character in the book also seems the saddest.

Although I wouldn't say I was gripped by Beautiful Ruins. I read my allotted fifty pages per day and at the end of the fifty pages felt no urge to keep reading. If I had truly loved it, I would have finished it in one sitting. Maybe I didn’t love it because there was no compelling central character only an assortment of eccentrics. Also everyone, even the slimy producer, was annoyingly noble.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Visitation Street by Ivy Pochoda

A Brooklyn girl goes missing

June and Val, fifteen year old Italian-American girls on the lower rungs of the social ladder, decide one night to take a child’s raft into the East River. Something happens on the water. Unconscious Val alone washes up on shore, rescued by the upper class drunk, Jonathan, the music teacher at the girls’ Catholic school. A teenage African American boy who watched and followed the girls floating down the river, Cree, becomes the chief suspect in June’s disappearance. Fadi, the immigrant who owns the local bodega, attempts to solve the mystery.

I admired this book, especially the beautiful prose, the many differently motivated characters and frankly the ambition to present such a large cross section of society (like a Victorian novel). It definitely reminded me of Richard Price’s Clockers, although here too many people and plot lines couldn’t fit into 300 pages, and the story eventually collapsed, hastened by a fatal insistence for tying everything up. The plot started veering away from the emotion. Is that a genre thing? Every mystery does not have to be solved. This book was marked as a detective story, but maybe it was actually a literary novel. I get down on a book two weeks ago because there isn't enough plot then I get down on this book because there too much plot. What I end up thinking is that it is very difficult to achieve the right balance between character and plot and the evocation of emotion.

Ghosts and ghostly voices wound their way through the story, figures from the past imprisoning the characters within the cultural and geographic boundaries of Red Hook. The three main characters all had a tragic back story, and a secret weighing them down.  Those ghostly plotlines were a little bit more interesting than the question of who or what made June disappear. There were a couple of implausible romantic choices, and maybe too much of the shopkeeper, although he was the most fully realized character in the book. The black characters had a nobility thing going on which tended to push them into a two dimensional rather than a three dimensional shape.  This book had a good start, but never quite lifted off.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

Society's rules mean nothing in the face of love

As a child, Catherine Earnshaw, wild daughter of an ancient family, runs across the dangerous deserted beautiful moors with her companion, the foundling gypsy Heathcliff. The two get into mischief, but also into something else - a bond which cannot be broken even by death. Catherine’s brother dislikes the upstart Heathcliff and, once his protector dies, treats him despicably. After Heathcliff disappears, Catherine marries Edgar, the effete young gentleman from the adjoining estate. When highly sensitive Catherine is at death’s door, Heathcliff returns to exact a terrible vengeance on anyone (as well as their heirs) who ever humiliated him. Christian morality, however, is restored at the end of the book. For the most part.

 Weird, weird, weird. I hated this book as a teenager partly because I couldn’t figure out the dialect and partly because Heathcliff and Catherine are so – awful. This time, I deeply admired the noncomformity of it. The opening scene is the upside down madhouse of Wuthering Heights as seen through the narrative eye of the ninny tenant Lockwood. Most of the rest of the story is Lockwood relating the words of Nelly Dean, the shrewd housekeeper who happens to be present at most plot events, or Lockwood relating the words of Nelly Dean relating the words of someone else, (usually a young woman Heathcliff has abused.) The relationship of Catherine and Heathcliff stands outside Christianity and any kind of Victorian morals. Nobody in the book claims to understand it. I’m not even sure you can call it love – it’s almost like Heathcliff and Cathy are the same person.

The book is well plotted. Or at least not as ill plotted as Jane Eyre. For the most part, the characters’s motivations are sound. The story is broken up by pretty descriptions of nature and the moor. We see the ghost at the beginning, and never again thereafter, only guessing at her presence by Heathcliff’s actions. He truly is haunted. I found a lot of the story pretty spooky, especially the bit where young Catherine is abandoned to tend her dying husband with no assistance whatsoever. Heathcliff and Catherine's eternal love is not constrained by society.

Monday, June 9, 2014

The Last Days of California by Mary Miller

Road trip to the almost Rapture

Mr. Metcalf believes the end of the world is coming -- the Rapture sucking the saved to heaven.  He packs his wife and two daughters into the car and they set off from Alabama to California. Jess, the narrator, and Elise, the wild older sister are two completely different personalities.  Elise is pregnant and rebellious.  Jess is devout but ready to explore.  The novel consists of fast food lunches and motel pools filled with packs of handsome boys.

Not much happens in this book though a meal at the Waffle House comes to life.  The writing is tremendous, lively and lyrical and the distinct characters are all sharply cut.  This is definitely a classic American road trip novel with religious overtones.  There really wasn't an ending.  Dad seems super mellow once his divine certainty is divinely snubbed.  They never do make it to California.

I guess I would call this a safe first novel.  The stakes are low.  It reminded me of the zombie novel I read recently -- a nibble instead of a bite.  Teenagers and their online lives are depicted -- maybe not so realistically.  Jess seems depressed by the internet.  I'm not a teenager but I'm in close proximity to them.  In a way, the internet is them.  Teen sex is shown as dreadful -- it's the status symbol of the boy the girl is after, not an orgasm or even emotional fulfillment.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Twenty Grand by Rebecca Curtis

An awkward young woman observe life in all its ugliness and liveliness

My posting streak was interrupted by laptop theft.  But now I have a nicer one!  Anyway, I had read Rebecca Curtis's recent story in Harpers and realized I needed to read more of her stories.  I loved the story in Harpers.  It sucked you right in then took you on a journey.   The construction was really clever.  Even though none of the stories in this debut collection were as wonderful as that Harper's story, I really enjoyed this collection.  Rebecca Curtis has a unique voice.

This collection had two types of stories.  The first kind were realistic, concerning a sensitive narrator in an intolerable situation with comically dreadful supporting characters. Most of the "realistic" stories are set in New Hampshire, among the meatheads. Those were by far the strongest -- emotionally deep and hilarious.  My favorites were Hungry Self and The Alpine Slide and The Witches. Twenty Grand, the title story, fell in this vein, though the plot felt a little too contrived.  Then there were the more surreal, fabulist stories, with a political orientation.  They were more colorless and and more humorless.  Thinner.  The key thing here is the narrative perspective.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Story of a marriage

Nick Dunne wakes with a start on the morning of his fifth wedding anniversary, and descends to the kitchen of his rented McMansion to find his wife, the now grown “Amazing Amy” of a children’s book series, making crepes. The homey scene fills him with dread. Later that day, Amy turns up missing. Suspicion falls on Nick, whose first person narration omits key elements of the truth.  The book’s chapters then alternate between Nick’s retelling of the events after Amy’s disappearance and Amy’s diary entries relating events up until her disappearance.

This blockbuster's dirty little secret is that it is actually a literary novel, a novel that works on many levels. Not only as a murder mystery, but also as a comedy, a commentary on the current state of American womanhood, a sociological comparison of urban and rural and a dissection of the institution of marriage. The story wastes no time getting started – the girl is gone within twenty-four pages. Quickly the reader realizes this couple is tragically mismatched. In addition, both Amy and Nick seem to be missing some basic human responses. Ingeniously, the stakes are raised, assisted by various well delineated characters, characters who also serve as plot mechanisms.

Amy is a great creation, entertainingly cold and very funny. The Amazing Amy books ended each chapter on a quiz. So Amy inserts the quizzes into her diary. The couple has an anniversary tradition – she hides clues all over town and it’s Nick’s job to figure them out. The clues are clever, murderous, like something out of Cosmopolitan. The ultimate question is what do women want? (Men apparently want to be left alone.) The prose is consistently entertaining and Flynn is a master of showing not telling. Near the end, however, an essential plot twist feels not quite motivated, a little too out of character. This book would certainly bear a rereading. It’s all about staying together for the sake of the children.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

The Reader by Bernhard Schlink

A mysterious older woman is kind to a fifteen year old boy

One afternoon during the late 1950’s, German high school student Michael Berg vomits on his way home from school and is assisted by the no nonsense Hanna, a red headed woman in her thirties.  After he returns to her apartment to thank her, he glimpses, through an open door, her putting on her stockings. They begin an affair and she teaches him about sexual pleasure.  Together they take a secret bicycle vacation and she becomes irrationally angry when he slips out for coffee, leaving only a note.  One day Hanna vanishes and Michael continues with his life.   He marries and has a child, but realizes no woman can inspire the same passion he felt for Hanna. Then, as a law student, he is called to observe the trial of several Nazi guards accused of atrocities – Hanna is among them.

This book was short and sensuously written. I enjoyed reading about their youthful love affair. My problem was when after Michael starts observing the trial the reader realizes he is incredibly pompous and condescending. He suddenly divines that Hanna is illiterate which would ameliorate some of her guilt and allow her to put on a better defense. This plot twist felt gimmicky and annoying. He attempts to explain her illiteracy to the judge but Hanna has no interest in trying to ameliorate her guilt. She doesn’t think she is guilty at all. She was only doing what anyone else, any other German, would have done in that situation. If a group of women condemned to die are burning to death in a church, are the prison guards supposed to save them? What is also on trial is the cooperation of the German people with the inhumane Nazi regime. Hanna was just following orders. 
Afterwards, Michael feels guilty, troubled by her unwillingness to defend herself. He narrates some books into a tape recorder and sends the tapes to Hanna in prison. He doesn’t write or call, just regularly mails the tapes. Eighteen years later, the warden calls. Hanna is ready to be released – can Michael help? Michael goes to the prison. But Hanna is no longer his hot playmate, but a stout older lady who smells funny. She kills herself before release, and Michael travels to New York to discuss things with the lone surviver of the atrocity. The talk doesn't go well.

I'm not sure what the reader is supposed to feel at the end of the book. To feel sorry for Michael?  Who couldn't even visit poor Hanna in prison?