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.