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.