Sunday, December 28, 2014

Delicate Edible Birds by Lauren Groff

Nine stories about articulate pissed off women

My favorite was the first, ”Lucky Chow Fun”, about a fat girl in an upstate town trying to fit in on the guys swim team and having to deal first with her vulnerable family and then with Chinese restaurant that alternates as a whorehouse. That story, with the use of lyrical lush sentences, created a real sense of time and place. “Blythe,” as well, had a crazy energy, a take on the Anne Sexton/Maxine Kumin friendship. The rest of the stories, for the most part, left me cold. Finally, the title story annoyed me, much the way it had annoyed me when I read it in Best American Short Stories. The main character was a pain and I didn’t care what happened to her.

The strength of this collection is the offbeat point of view, the unique eccentric details that deepened the characters and deepened their relationships. I loved the voice, the facility with language and consonance. Many of the stories take place over lifespans, a historical novel squeezed into twenty pages. The weakness, for me, is the frequent collapse into sentimentality. I prefer stories more gritty and realistic. What does this collection say about women? That they are victims? Part of the problem (and part of the delight too) was that one of my pleasures was recognizing the original text the story was derived from. I should have been concentrating on the emotions, instead I was thinking, O, it’s Abelard and Heloise. I want to be entranced, not figuring out a cross word puzzle.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Tapping the Source by Kem Nunn

Innocent boy from the desert learns about surfing and the dark side of life.

Ike Tucker, orphan boy from a hick desert town, receives word one day that his runaway sister has vanished for real this time, last seen in the company of three unsavory surfers. Despite his small stature, and utter cluelessness about life in the big city, he takes the bus to Huntington Beach, determined to track down the three men. But first he encounters Preston Marsh, one time surfer golden boy, now tattooed threatening biker. Preston has old ties to these men he would rather not revisit, but he helps Ike as well as teaches him how to surf. Ike finally gets close to one of the three men, Hound Adams, leader of a magnetic circle of surfers and is soon sucked into the various temptations of Hound's criminal lifestyle.  Eventually, Ike’s innocent girlfriend is threatened by depravity, and Preston comes to the rescue.

I loved the thoughtful poetic writing, the careful characterization of shy passive loyal Ike. And the sensually depicted details of surfing and riding the waves. This is a surf novel which is truly about surfing. Although again I asked myself the question -- Is this genre or literary? Eventually I decided that two elements kept the book in the genre category. First of all, the very thin characterization of women. Both the sister and the girlfriend are beautiful sexually damaged girls needing a man to protect them. (Although is that any different from several more sophisticated literary books with barely there female characters?) And secondly, near the end, the initially modest plot disintegrated into a welter of satanic silliness.  However, I plan to read more of Kem Nunn.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Music and Silence by Rose Tremain

A noble King attempts to lead his Nation

King Christian IV tries to jumpstart Denmark’s economy with innovative projects, while fending off recalcitrant nobles, treacherous Swedes, various religious wars, an angry wife, and a majorly upset stomach. The King also loves music, believes it medically necessary for his condition and maintains one of Europe’s finest orchestra, usually secreted in the freezing basement with the casks of wines and the chicken coop. A sophisticated system of pipes carries the music to the courtroom. Young Peter Claire, young English lutenist, joins the King’s orchestra. The King takes a special liking to the angel-faced Peter, needing him at all times to sooth his soul. Peter, however, falls in love (at first sight) with Emilia, unhappy lady-in-waiting to the furious adulterous Kirsten Munk, the king’s morganatic wife. The stories of these characters, along with several others, are told in the rest of Music and Silence.

This book was a pleasure to read, technically impressive as Tremain juggles the different characters and the differing styles of their different perceptions. This book succeeds on many levels – a historical novel in which the reader learns about the history of Denmark and its multitalented king, as a narrative tour de force using many different voices, (which the most entertaining is the embittered hilarious voice of Kirsten Munk) and an exploration of the different variations of love. The narrative voices were spectacular (although the king’s actual music seems entirely orchestral, with no vocalists.)

The only problem, and I’m not sure this is truly a “problem” is that the plot of Music and Silence is the EXACT SAME plot as Tremain's earlier novel Restoration. Restoration with sleighs – the intelligent wounded king, the innocent sidekick feeling deep love and loyalty to the sovereign, the beautiful innocent girl under the King’s protection.  This novel was much longer, however.  And this one had an emphatically happy ending.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Bloodchild by Octavia Butler

Aliens, stronger than we, are coming

Assorted stories and essays by Octavia Butler (her last book perhaps?) The strength of these stories is the unadorned and quietly ferocious voice. The reader is lulled into accepting perfectly normal American circumstances, followed in a page or two by the disorienting twist. What the reader assumed was normal will turn out not to be normal at all. Many of the stories have alien creatures, ugly all powerful creatures from other planets newly arrived on earth, needing something vital. These creatures are not deliberately cruel, they can be reasoned with, however, they demand complete submission from the initially confused humans. Bodily integrity is violated and the human victim does not overtly dislike it – they have learned to take pleasure in it.

The imagery is invasive and memorable. I especially liked the story, “The Evening and the Morning and the Night” about people trying to chew their way out of their own body. All the stories have a philosophical spine fused to a crazy imaginative skin.