Sunday, January 26, 2014

May We Be Forgiven by A.M. Homes

Coming to the rescue gladdens a despairing man

Harold Silver, a Nixon scholar, must fill the parental vacuum left once favored brother George goes berserk and murders his wife (while she’s in bed with Harold). George has two fairly strange kids. Harold reclaims them from their boarding school exile and informally adopts another oddball child. Harold also meets two weird women who are sexually interested in him. As he helps out more and more, engaging with other people, he feels better and better. The final image is one of family happiness around the Thanksgiving table. 

I appreciated the ambition and the scope. This novel may have been unfashionably long, but it was never boring.  At times, perhaps, the different scenes felt pointless in the larger structure, but I was always entertained. The tone is irreverent, and, at its core, this novel is a commentary on American society.  Using present tense, Homes satirizes many aspects of modern life: Online dating, the prison system, dementia, the educational system, over the top party catering. Her strong suit is crazy dialogue, though with not a lot of lyricism in the descriptions. There are many comic cameos by real people – Don DeLillo, Deborah Treisman. And Tricia Nixon in a stroke of genius.

Homes removes one obstacle to the plot: Harold has tons of money which removes some of the conflict but allows for some splendid scenes set in Africa. I had a choice between this and another long well regarded book. I read a few pages of both – this one seemed more wicked, more energetic, so I dove right in.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Eleven Minutes by Paulo Coelho

A young woman leaves Brazil to become a prostitute in Geneva.

Maria, disappointed with her hohum life in Brazil, encounters a Swiss man who offers her a job in his nightclub in Geneva.  Looking for a change, she takes him up, but growing lonely in cold Switzerland, she begins working at an upscale brothel.  There she meets two special clients who tempt her with two different visions of life, one profane and one sacred (but still pretty profane).  She ponders which path she should take.

I thought this was going to be a literary novel, a “worthwhile” novel, and after a couple of pages I realized it wasn’t.  But by that time, I couldn’t put down the book.  I was totally sucked into the story of resourceful Maria and her spiritual search.  The story is entertaining but also philosophically pretentious and sublimely silly.  A confection of loopy dogma.  Many pages are devoted to the sacred mystery of the vaginal orgasm.  With the help of a sensitive man, Maria achieves her once unbelievable goal.  Whew.  Or should I say, Wow.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

The Vagrants by Yiyun Li

Winds of change blow through the isolated city of Muddy River

One morning, the once ardent young soldier of the Cultural Revolution, Gu Shan, who just as ardently turned against Communism, is executed after spending ten years, the flower of her youth, in a brutal prison. She wasted her life because of a belief in slogans, and has gone mad, thinking she is Chairman Mao’s girlfriend. This novel tells the story of how her execution affects the town as well as the many characters entwined with her fate.  

We learn about Gu Shan’s parents, Teacher Gu and Mrs. Gu.  Their marriage, in which he is an educated man whose parents met in Paris, and she an illiterate concubine who was freed during the revolution, tells you all you need to know about the forces shaping modern China. Kai, a successful newscaster who has it all, rich husband, beautiful baby son, remembers fervent Gu Shan from their youth, and, influenced by a mortally ill young man who loves her, decides to strike a blow against repression. The Huas, presumably the Vagrants of the title, are the city’s junk collectors. They have a good heart and adopted six daughters found abandoned on their rounds. But after the revolution, officials packed the girls off to different orphanages.  Now the Huas have nothing but each other and their memories. 

This is historical fiction and this novel will help the reader understand China better than a number of scholarly articles. But it’s fiction first, history second. A gripping story, cleverly plotted, with lots of characters. Overall, the book was depressing and essentially every single character has his heart broken. Also, the novel (intentionally or not) makes China look bad. To western eyes the culture comes off as heartless. There no caritas here just people stomping on the necks of other people. Dog eat dog. (Literally) The prose is simple and beautiful but many times I was shocked by the brutality of the memorable images. At the end, even that dog gets it between the eyes, although a tiny bit of hope is offered, when the crippled girl runs away with the rag pickers. Are they all Vagrants then? Even though it was unpleasant reading this book (sometimes highly unpleasant), I thought about the characters long after finishing the final page.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

An Invisible Sign of My Own by Aimee Bender

An Aspergery girl becomes the world’s worst math teacher

On her nineteenth birthday, an odd girl, Mona Gray, is kicked out of the family home. Her mother wants her to be independent. Mona is most comfortable with numbers, in fact, she is in love with numbers. Somewhat improbably, she gets a job as the math teacher at a nearby elementary school. The novel is about her tragicomical adventures with her second grade class, a constrained romance with the science teacher, her hypochondriac father, and her curiosity about the reclusive hardware store owner who wears wax “mood numbers” around his neck.

This book was extremely weird, a bit like Alice Munro on LSD. Weird and dark and flinty. Completely unsentimental. The prose was detailed, beautiful and created a legitimate world. (Though a world perhaps not located in America.) How much of this story takes place in the world of reality and how much doesn’t? Mona achieves some modest successes and some spectacular failures. Her ambitions are presented as deliberately slight. Ultimately though, the stakes for me remained too low.