Sunday, March 30, 2014

Forgetfulness by Ward Just

An aging man tries to forget his wife’s death and his past involvement in American crimes abroad

Thomas Railles, a successful painter, who retired (retreated) to a mountainous French village, is pulled back to his old life as a quasi CIA operative after his beloved wife freezes to death in the snowy mountains, either abandoned or perhaps even perhaps murdered by four suspected Islamic terrorists. Two of Thomas’s old school chums, both experienced CIA operatives who happen to be visiting, vow revenge. Bernhard, the colder blooded of the two, makes good on his pledge and, some months later invites Thomas to witness the bastinado interrogation of the four terrorists. Thomas really does not want to go, but does so anyway.

This book was built on a few gripping set pieces tenuously supported by a contrived plot that hardly genuflects to plausibility. Are we really supposed to believe three high school friends end up working for the CIA and living in Europe? Or that torture interrogations are scripted like Broadway musicals? The powerful scenes were the stream of conscious narration of the wife freezing to death, the interrogation scene, Thomas making his way back to his house in a terrific rain storm, and the final scene where declining Bernhard meets up with Thomas on a Maine beach. Inspired silliness. I’m not sure if this type of book is my cup of tea – the Hemingwayesque stoic Midwest narrator embroiled in the world’s evil.  For me, the evil didn't seem all that evil.  Thomas feels guilty, but he's clearly a well bred kindly man who couldn't hurt a fly.  And didn't hurt a fly. Perhaps forgetfulness, for him, is an abdication of responsibility.

Thomas drinks a lot of espressos and calvados, plays pool by himself and misses his wife. So much of his feeling is unexpressed but you sense that if it ever was expressed it would be pretty pedestrian. Part of my problem is that I never got a sense of the scope of the crimes of the CIA, or the scope of the events Thomas had been involved in. 9-11 is invoked like the beating of a drum.  There is absolutely no sense of humor in the piece.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Monstress by Lysley Tenorio


Old traditions tragicomically bump into the shiny new American culture

I enjoyed this book of weird heartfelt stories of Filipinos trying to make sense of modern values, a different American world. The quirkily sad characters inwardly debate whether perhaps these new values might be superior. In any case, they are reluctantly attracted to them. The most impressive thing about this book was the pellucid prose and the moral unwillingness to look away from unpleasantness and loss. All of the stories have an underlay of satire and the details are wonderful and moving.

The opening story Monstress was strong, a story about a minor Filipino movie star who come to America to star in a budget monster movie. The Brothers is narrated by a man with a transgender brother who has violated all the conservative standards of his immigrant family. By the end of the story, the man, with the help of his brother’s friend, Raquel, begins to make choices for himself. Felix Starro was about a young man and his grandfather, a flimflam team who “heal” gullible immigrants. On a trip to San Francisco, the grandson plans to con the old man, take all the money and begin a new life in America with his girlfriend. I also loved Help, about an airport security guard trying to avenge the honor of Imelda Marcos by beating up the Beatles. I wasn’t crazy about Save the I-Hotel about two old Filipino guys, one with a crush on the other. It felt too didactic and there were no surprises. The View from Culion was another beautiful story about a leper colony in the Phillipines. Betrayal is a theme in this particular story, although I wonder if it was a crutch leaned on too much in order to wrap this and some of the other stories up. Overall a very impressive debut.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

The Panopticon by Jenni Fagan


A girl fights against the system.

Fifteen year old Scot Anais Hendricks has for her entire life been in and out of foster care save for a few peaceful years as the adopted daughter of an eventually murdered prostitute. The novel begins when Anais, covered in blood, is unable to recall whether she had anything to do with an assault upon a policewoman now lying in a coma. The suspicious police bring her to the Panopticon, a home for troubled teens.

After that exciting opening, the plot sort of fizzled, and never really built to any insights about the foster care system or underage crime or even who assaulted the policewoman. Anais waits to be charged, meanwhile beating up a lot of wankers and taking a lot of drugs. She dreams of a normal family, especially a loving mother. The remarkable thing about this novel is the voice of Anais and it was the voice of Anais that sucked me in and wouldn’t let go. She is like a feral child striking back against anyone who tries to control her. However, she is good hearted and fights for the underdog.

The Panopticon is a prison where the doors don’t shut and the warden can see anywhere at all times. This conceit (which is a good one) never quite got fully utilized. The troubled teens who live at the Panopticon manage to get into all types of serious mischief in the facility and apparently no one in any position of responsibility is able to observe them, let alone do anything about it. In fact, to American eyes, the idea that the Panopticon is some sort of reform school is laughable. The kids come and go freely and have sufficient state allowances for Friday night dates and clothes. Some of the girls (and boys) work as prostitutes. The police threaten to send Anais to the secure unit, where (get this) you may not get a weekend pass.

One unique element of the book was the Scottish dialogue, which worked well for me, as the strange words didn’t obscure the meaning, but added atmospheric touches. Ultimately I suppose this novel falls into the category of the girl heroine struggling against the monolithic state oppressor except this girl heroine has underage sex and drops acid. All the same you root for her success.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Moll Flanders by Daniel DeFoe

A woman grows old living by her wits

Moll Flanders (not her real name), born in Newgate Prison, quickly becoming a ward of the parish, is lucky enough to have a kind foster mother who teaches her fine manners and sewing skills. After the old woman dies, things seem to be looking up when Moll takes a place as a maid in a wealthy household, but once the older brother seduces her, she begins her life as a dissembler, a woman who doesn’t quite tell the truth, as the truth would be the end of her and it is more profitable to lie. Strictly following the rules would result in starving. Her first crime is adultery, the second bigamy. She marries many times and has many children, all of whom she abandons. It’s only much later in life (and in the book), once Moll loses her youth and looks, that she turns to theft. And she turns out to be a gifted thief. With some close calls, she makes a living, until she is caught, reprieved from the noose and exiled to America. But through a fortunate plot twist, sixty two year old Moll reunites with her favorite husband, buys a few slaves (or African servants as she calls them) and makes a fortune planting tobacco, accumulating enough money to return to England and enjoy her golden years. So a happy ending.

This was a remarkable book with an irresistible first person narrator. It’s hard to believe Moll Flanders was one of the first novels, although the book’s structure is simplistic, episodic. The motivation for every scene is, I need money. Even though Moll is a con woman for almost the entire book, the reader roots for her success. She’s a little too mercenary (and possibly humorless) to be likeable, but she is recognizably human and easy to empathize with. Moll is very practical. She’s always itemizing; her pounds, her linen. She’s is not unusually greedy. She only turns to dishonesty when funds get scarily low.

No one is truly malevolent here.  All of Moll’s husbands and lovers, her Godmother midwife/abortionist, and the various people she meets are quite nice. Though it is difficult for the modern reader to accept the way Moll simply abandons her babies without an iota of regret. There is not a shred of romanticism in this book, no Jane Eyrish dilemmas here. You wouldn’t find Moll fainting from hunger by the side of the road, she would swipe something first. The end of the book reminded me of a Fidelity Investments retirement advertisement. You deserve it.  It puts lie to the idea that everyone died back then when they were thirty two.

 Personally I found this book a bit of a chore to read. I wasn’t excited to pick it up each night. I’m not sure why – the writing is lively and Defoe made me feel that I was inside an actual woman’s head. Perhaps Moll is too cold. I learned some things – I didn’t realize lace was as valuable as gold. And her crime spree and eventual return to England is certainly helped by how easy it was back then to abandon one identity for another. A convenience that is probably gone forever.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Telex From Cuba by Rachel Kushner

A fragile world of clueless American expats is swept into the dustbin of history

For decades in the Oriente, the remotest part of Cuba, American managers have overseen the United Fruit Company sugarcane fields and by extension, the government of Cuba. The United Fruit Company prefers a stable situation to an unstable one and has few scruples about how the corrupt Cuban government maintains the profitable peace.  The head of the company, Mr. Stites, however, a likable well read chap, is sanguine about the educated guerillas in the mountains. He feels he can work with them.  At first.  This novel follows the fortunes of a few of the expats as they experience Castro’s revolution and the destruction of their comfortable bubble. We meet Everly Lederer, fascinated by the book Treasure Island, the young daughter of an engineer recently posted to the nickel mine. Mr. Stities’s teenage son KC, narrates a significant portion of the book. KC’s section also explains the mechanics of sugar production and the dynamics of the revolution (of which many Americans were initially supportive.) There is also a host of minor characters, including cold blooded French guerillas and drunken American wives. They drink a lot, the expats. They like to party.  Rachel K, Mr. Stites mysterious mistress in Havana and the mistress of more than one president, plays a key role in the revolution. Apparently she was a real historical figure, and not a stand in for the author.

The story opens with a bang, as the guerillas set the highly flammable cane fields afire. That act sets the threatening tone, and also lets KC Stites to explain everything about sugarcane processing and the roots of the revolution. In the beginning, the prose seems slightly constipated, careful, like in a first novel maybe. What is impressive is the scope and sweep, the ambition of the scenes, the use of Hemingway and Fidel as characters.

I read this because I loved The Flamethrowers.  This novel didn’t enthrall me the way that one did, although the scope was equally ambitious. I think the problem here was too many samey characters, dissipating the story’s momentum. Also, the narrative consciousness was scattered unlike the other book which maintained an intensity partially because of the first person narration.