Monday, April 28, 2014

Cherry by Mary Karr

An East Texas girl comes of age

Mary Marlene Karr, a young teenage eccentric in a town of redneck oil workers, experiences a Sixties adolescence, narrowly escaping serious injury or addiction.  Mary can’t figure out how to conform to her social group, or to high school rules, then finally to the expectations of the police. Her teenage years confirm her belief that she is a misfit. Despite that feeling, she also knows she is completely loved and made to feel superior by her nonconforming completely egocentric parents.

This book lacks the powerful structure of The Liar's Club, a story of survival, but retains the amazing sentences. In this installment, her larger than life parents are more in the background, no longer twin pillars holding up the plot.  Even though this structure is more baggy, the writing is still deeply pleasurable, especially the down home dialogue contrasted with the genuine psychological insight into the town characters. Beautiful prose combined with druggy interludes. Large chunks of this book are in the second person, especially the more emotional passages, like her teenage depression. But overall the book is told in a hilarious deadpan style.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

The Ghost of the Mary Celeste by Valerie Martin

What is beyond

Rather than being a straightforward tale of the abandoned ship, the Mary Celeste, this novel is a collection of narratives, apparently at first only slightly connected with each other and with the missing ship. The book begins with a loving young sea captain and his wife who then shockingly drown. The second section is the diary of Sarah Cobb, the cousin of the young man who drowned in the first section, describing her life as a member of a prominent seafaring family from Marion, Massachusetts. She is concerned about her younger sister Hannah, who is attracted to the newfangled trend of spiritualism. The final scene is Sarah discovering her sister deep in a spiritualist trance. Then comes press clippings from the disappearance of the Mary Celeste, a description of an African voyage young Arthur Conan Doyle took, a description of Cornhill magazine and the story Arthur Conan Doyle published about the disappearance of the “Marie Celeste”. That section ends with a young journalist and her friend reading the spooky story. The next part is narrated by the journalist, Phoebe Grant and tells the story of her encounters with the famous spiritualist Violet Petra, a woman who survives by being a guest of various rich patronesses. That is followed by a section about Arthur Conan Doyle, now a rich skeptic touring American, hating his Sherlock Holmes fame. He becomes intrigued by Violet Petra. Little by little, the reader starts to put the pieces together.

This novel is not really about the Mary Celeste. It’s a story about telling a story, (or maybe a story about the Victorian mind). It’s a story about voices from the past.   Maybe some of these are real, maybe some aren't.  The story is fragmented, yet legitimately scary. (It gave me a nightmare.) One thing Valerie Martin is good at is building tension to a climax. She also has no compunction about killing characters off. The interesting structure, which takes a little while to comprehend, might throw off a reader who was interested in more red meat. (Like what happened to the Mary Celeste.)

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Nana by Emile Zola

 A redhead dominates Second Empire Parisian society 

Nana, a vivacious teenager, becomes the talentless “star” of a Parisian musical. Soon every man clamors to possess her, including the immensely rich Count Muffat, who suffers spiritual agonies over his sinful lust, the cute teenager Georges, and an army of rich men. Nana supplements her theatrical paycheck with quick cash from assignations, but is also eager to accept apartments, clothing, jewels and income streams from any man who desire intimate access on a more consistent basis. Her heart, however, belongs to her little son Louis. And perhaps Satin, her blue eyed prostitute friend. Nana goes from rags to riches to rags back to incomparable riches again, only to die ignominiously of smallpox as the French Army marches off to disaster in the Franco Prussian war. In the end, every man who lusted after her is financially and morally destroyed.

This novel is very cinematic. Great set pieces – the opening scene of the play with a naked Nana as Venus, the lesbian cafĂ©, the horse race scene. Perhaps the movies have replaced these old fashioned novels. I don’t mind long books that make me feel like I’m going on a spiritual journey but this one made me feel as if I watching a long expensively produced miniseries. That is, a bit repetitive and dull. Nana is a beautiful promiscuous vivacious dolt, a somewhat heavy handed symbol of the corruption of France. I’m not sure if I felt any deep sympathy or interest in how she would end up. She navigates a world defined by male privilege and reading this book definitely made me appreciate feminism more.  

Like Moll Flanders, by the end of the book, Zaza is entirely motivated by money. In the final chapter, the lines of men and women tramping through Nana's bedroom became comical and cartoonish. I did like the final scene where Nana dies, a biting critique of France as the screaming crowd marches into the utter humiliation of the entirely staged Franco Prussian war. The author’s contempt for French society (high and low) came through loud and clear.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

My Education by Susan Choi

A woman looks back at a traumatic love affair

Regina Gottlieb, a young graduate student at an upstate New York university sounding very much like Cornell, is infatuated by her sexy English professor Nicholas Brodeur. Rather implausibly, almost immediately he invites the bright Regina to become his graduate teaching assistant. One afternoon, while grading papers at the professor’s home, Regina encounters his beautiful wife Martha, and in a pretty nifty twist, the pair begin a heavy duty sexual love affair. Over some months, they share a lot of ecstasy, but the affair comes to a close because of Martha’s reluctance to introduce/elevate Regina as her partner. Regina falls apart, then reconnects with Martha fifteen years later.

On the face of it, the stakes of this novel of manners are slight. Choi’s heavy-on-the-commas writing style got on my nerves at first. I read the first fifty pages then decided to give the book five more pages before bailing. I’m glad I kept reading because the story started sucking me in on page 54. The strong spot turned out to be the exuberant writing – the raw honesty and shocking and inventive imagery and funny crazy anecdotes. There’s very good explicit writing about sex (although I didn’t understand how a woman who is breastfeeding has such a high libido), great observations and a number of kooky minor characters. But pacing is an issue here – the momentum seriously lags in spots, especially at the end. There really is no need for Regina’s meeting up with Martha 15 years later. The ending is very anticlimactic.